Back in the picture

Orlando Sentinel 4/5/2005
by Aline Mendelsohn


The photo booth, a piece of Americana, has returned to popularity, showing up at bar mitzvahs, trade shows, weddings and bars.

In the corner of the smoky bar, the booth stands quietly, curtain drawn, bulbs flashing.

Sam Moore and Jeannie Roper, both 21, weave around the Orlando Bar-BQ-Bar photo booth, giggling, clutching dollar bills, wishing the couple inside would finish already.

Alie Waldron, 23, and Greg Zimmerman, 26, step out, retrieve their photos and examine the results: one of the couple kissing, another of them posturing as rock stars.

But clearly, something is missing.

"We didn't get one of my shoes!" Waldron cries, pointing to her new stiletto sandals.

They must go back in, Waldron decides. To fully document the night, she must document her shoes.

Once an outdated curiosity found in the odd arcade here and there, the classic photo booth is back in style. Party planners are renting booths for weddings, trade shows, corporate events and bar mitzvahs, and in Orlando, they're popping up at bars and malls.

Despite the popularity of digital cameras and camera phones, the photo booth offers a peculiar charm. It's more personalized than computerized photos. It provides an instant print, with no negatives.

More than that, the photo booth offers the experience of closing the curtain, anticipating the flash and waiting for the strip to slide out. It's a piece of Americana, "sort of like apple pie and baseball," says Allen Weisberg, president of Apple Industries, a photo-booth supplier. "It's a staple. Every picture is different, and the photo strip tells a story."

Old but modern

As American as the photo booth may seem, it was actually invented by a Siberian immigrant, Anatol Josepho, in the 1920s.

When Josepho opened his first studio in New York, "there were lines of people," says Nakki Goranin, author of the forthcoming Photobooth Century: The History and Art of Photobooths of America.

They became especially popular during World War II, when many people didn't own cameras, says Gary Gulley, a manager at Photo-Me USA in Texas. By the 1960s, with the development of the Polaroid instant camera, the photo booth began to fade.

They still made appearances in dozens of movies: Beaches, Parenthood, and most significantly, Amelie, the 2001 movie that centers on lost photo-booth pictures.

In the past few years, the retro cycle circled back, propelling photo booths into style once again. Today, a photo booth typically costs about $8,000 and rentals start around $1,200 per event. A single session at a booth runs $2-$3.

Many modern booths have a vintage design but use digital technology -- faster printing.

Although faster, it's still the same concept.

"How thrilling it is to go in that booth and be all alone," says Babbette Hines, a Los Angeles photo dealer and author of Photobooth. "When you're in the photo booth, when the curtain is pulled back, you can be sexy or cocky or whoever you want."

Photo strips also provide "a marker in history," says Paul Kadillak of Photo Works Interactive in San Francisco, which sells and rents booths. "It holds time for just a moment. You'll actually put them in your album and you'll realize, 'this is who I was.'"

What happens behind the curtain?

"Everything that's not supposed to happen in public," says Jeremiah Caret, who works at Bar-BQ-Bar.

And what happens behind the curtain doesn't necessarily stay behind the curtain, because there's proof. Photographic proof.

R.J. Bock, 33, notes that a single strip can offer clues to the mysteries of the night (as in, "You hooked up with her?")

That's the beauty of the raw photo strip.

"If there's a picture," says Andrew Chadwick, 30, "it really happened."

Veterans of the booth

Covered with markered graffiti and stickers for bands you've never heard of, the booth at Bar-BQ-Bar doesn't draw attention to itself, yet on this night it's the center of attention.

Pauline Cumming and her boyfriend, Willy Trimble, are waiting for their pictures.

"We are the kings and queens of the photo booth," crows Cumming, 35, who tonight is celebrating her fourth anniversary with Trimble, 32.

It was here in the photo booth that the Orlando couple had their first "makeout session," she says. Since then, the pair have collected dozens of strips.

So have Chadwick and Amber Frazier, 23. They are examining tonight's takes, which range from panicked to silly to campy.

"Each one is a mini-emotion," Chadwick says.

Chadwick, who fondly remembers childhood photo-booth pictures at the Melbourne Square mall, scoffs at those newfangled booths that offer scenes of colorful and animated backgrounds.

Another kind of booth, which produces photo stickers, was a hit in Japan but never reached the same popularity in the United States, though they're scattered around Orlando tourist corridors and bowling alleys.

"I want four squares, four vertical squares," says Chadwick, who posts his strips on his Web log.

Jill Carlisle, 26, and Gina Masters, 27, hang their strips on their doors.

Each time the Orlando women hit the downtown bars, they start their festivities with a couple of sessions at the photo booth.

Usually, their frames follow this pattern: a shocked expression, then a mean one, then a happy one, "always with some miscellaneous guy," Carlisle says.

Pointing to a man smiling next to her in the fresh photo strip, Carlisle says, "I don't know who he is. He bought us a drink."

Around the corner at the Eye Spy bar, the photo booth looks tamer and even family friendly, showcasing a large image of a beaming toddler. A mirrored panel on the side invites patrons to touch up their lipstick or perfect their hair, but no one does that.

These pictures might be for posterity, but they aren't for beauty.

Inside the booth, Ryland Bojack, 23, and Dave Janas, 24, are contorting their faces into monsterlike masks. When they emerge, Bojack and Janas look perfectly normal. The ghoulish faces are for inside the booth only.

Janas plans to plaster these photos on his fridge.

"It gives you something to remember tomorrow. You know where you were last night," Janas says.

Besides, Janas adds as he glances at his strip of funny faces: "Where else do I have four chances to look this good?"

Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel

Contributed by Brian