The Weasel: Snapshots from the edge

The Independent 4/5/2008
by Christopher Hirst


Most of us emerge blinking from this tedious ritual once a decade. Aside from passports, it is a more frequent rite of passage for those who need a mug shot for rail, security or other pettifogging purposes. Bizarrely, you have to do it if you're going to the Glastonbury Festival. The experience of the Photobooth is unsatisfactory in every respect except for helping you negotiate the manifold barriers of modern life. It is boring, rather expensive, at 4 a go, and the results are depressing in their candour. Yet there was a time when we would do it for fun, usually in couples. The resulting strip was a mini movie in four stills.

You might essay the tongue, the gurn, the snog, the Dracula bite, the railway-tunnel yawn ... There was also the grouper fish (bottom lip thrust forward while rotating the eyes), the Plug from Bash Street Kids (top teeth over bottom lip) and the extraterrestrial alien, achieved by holding almost anything ? bread roll, fork, banana, bunch of celery ? to the forehead. A half-cucumber works particularly well. Or you could play it straight for three shots, withholding the comic denouement for shot No4. The background curtain pulled over the face was a favourite but there was also the surprise expulsion of a nimbus of cigarette smoke and (tricky to achieve) the 180-degree turn so the back of the head appeared in the final frame. No one, barring the veriest dullard, could pose straight-faced for all four shots.

These memories of giddy moments before an unembarrassing and unembarrassable photographer came flooding back with the arrival of American Photobooth by Nkki Goranin (Norton, 17.99), an artist who has gathered a collection of 3,000 titchy portraits by the tireless snapper in the booth. Highlights among these "orphaned photos" include a faux gangster from the Twenties puffing on a stogie, an old salt in a Mae West like the mariner who used to adorn tins of Skippers, a Schnozzle Durante lookalike mugging with his floozie. The shot of three sailors on shore leave is On the Town in a single snap. There are a sprinkling of stars amid the cuddled masses. Sitting on Jackie's knee, JFK displays a smile more dazzling than the booth's flashlight. A mysterious fist pretends to punch the po-faced Warhol. Enlarged to page size, many of the shots have an unexpected potency, akin to Richard Avedon's intensely observed close-ups. Surprisingly, only one page of the book is devoted to goofy poses, which include cocking a snook (the thumb-to-nose finger waggle), the bitten ear and some fine examples of open-mouth mugging.

On the other hand, too much zaniness can be tedious. Two other Photobooth books (there are a surprising number) consist of little else. MTV Photobooth (Rizzoli, 8.83) contains 200 pop celebs engaged in cross-eyes, self-strangulations, rude signs, etc. One review gives a tally: "44 tongues, 28 goofy faces, 15 middle fingers, 14 blown kisses ..." Hilhaven Lodge: The Photobooth Pictures by Brett Ratner (Powerhouse, 25) puts Hollywood in the little box. Jude Law manages a sideways levitation, while shaven-headed Colin Farrell kissing a beer can has been described as "Escaped Con on a Bender". The decision about whether to do wacky or straight is explored in an essay called Francis Bacon and the Photobooth that appeared in the Journal of Visual Culture in Britain. The author Richard Horney helpfully explains: "I argue that the Photobooth imager oscillates between two modes of self-representation: one that makes reference to the camera obscura and invests in older ontological ideas of unique individuality, and a more playful mode of inauthentic image-making ... which exploits the Photobooth's dynamics of commodification and repetition."

Agog to exploit the dynamics of commodification, Mrs W and I dashed to the nearest Photo-Me booth (as they're called in this country) for our first joint session in 20 years. Whirling down the stool to its ultimate low point, we clambered in for a spot of middle-aged canoodling. To be honest, it was a bit of a squeeze. Either these booths have got smaller over the years or we have got bigger. (Actually, it could be both. The Photo-Me website boasts how retailers can "increase their revenue" from the "compact Mini Booth".) Inside, we discovered more changes. The background curtain has disappeared, though a bespoke backdrop was provided by the graffiti "tags" of south London youths. Instead of four poses, we were only allowed one that was cloned four times over. Moreover, a sign indicated: "Smiling is not accepted by passport authorities." As a native of Yorkshire, a smile is not my default expression, but it's come to a pretty pass when some jack-in-office edits your mood. Mind you, there's nothing to say that you can't plonk half a cucumber on your forehead during your passport shot.

In the new improved Photo-Me booth, you are guided by a friendly female voice: "OK, Ready to go?" You can check your photograph on a TV screen before it is printed. When we accepted our second pose, a message flashed up that the image of me with Mrs W perched on my knee "would not be accepted by passport authorities". Ignoring this persecution by the Orwellian state, I pressed the "print" button. It was a lot faster than the old embarrassing wait, but the result was dreary replication. The machine's "fun" option of superimposed wacky hats was scant compensation for the impoverished service. During the half-mile journey home, I managed to lose our 4-worth of snaps. More "orphaned photos", I'm afraid.

Contributed by Brian