The strip of a lifetime

Sydney Morning Herald 1/29/2011
by Lindy Percival


The photobooth is back in fashion as artists, filmmakers and retro buffs call the shots

STRANGE and sometimes lovely things can happen inside a photobooth. Fantasies are played out, creativity overcomes constraint and friendships are captured in eternal freeze-frame. With curtain drawn and faces expectant, the famous, the destitute and the newly smitten have all submitted to the flash of the hidden camera, transforming the cupboard-like space into theatre, playground, or artist's studio.

When a Russian immigrant named Anatol Josepho installed the world's first automatic photo studio on Broadway in 1926, the public embraced its wondrous possibilities. Photographic portraiture had, until then, been a serious and costly undertaking involving studio, photographer and studied formality. Little wonder that New Yorkers were soon forming lengthy queues, quarters at the ready, outside these magical image-makers.

Within a few years, photobooths were operating around the world, spitting out low-cost portraits that were both playful and revealing. Without the directorial presence of the photographer, the subject ? alone or in company ? was free to call the shots.

Typically, the images that emerged spoke of love, friendship and familial bonds. Couples posed, heads touching, their beaming faces conveying the thrill of new-found love. Sailors on shore leave sat before scenic backdrops, stars of their own cheesy postcards. Rouged young women flirted with the lens, doing their best to replicate the Hollywood glamour of their matinee favourites.

In the decades that followed, the increasing portability and affordability of cameras meant that photobooths fell out of favour, consigning many to the scrap heap. But in the past 10-20 years, amid a wave of nostalgia for all things "retro", the photobooth has enjoyed a cultish revival.

On the US-based website, founders Tim and Brian provide a global snapshot of booths past and present, including a stylish new digital model designed by Philippe Starck and unveiled last month. The site urges fellow enthusiasts to "keep us on top of the happy arrival of a photobooth in a new location or the lamented loss of a favourite machine", with a locator map pinpointing booths as far afield as Melbourne and Maine.

Movie and TV listings offer a chronological record of even the most fleeting of photobooth references. Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent is there, unwittingly snapped while transforming into his superheroic self inside a sidewalk booth in Superman III, while the 2001 French film Amelie is lauded as "perhaps the only feature film in which a photobooth acts as a catalyst to the central action of the story".

Tapping into this renewed fervour, author Raynal Pellicer's new book, Photobooth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait, charts a broad sweep of imagery, from playful happy snaps, to the imaginative constructions in which artists the world over have defied the logistical limitations of these do-it-yourself studios. Pellicer (who also brought us Mugshots: An Archive Of The Famous, Infamous And Most Wanted), writes: "Numerous European or American artists, both renowned and amateur, seem to be resisting the digital wave and considering vintage photobooths as new media for experimentation."

In doing so, they are continuing a proud tradition that began when surrealists including Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy started visiting booths at Luna Park in Paris, spitting out playful self-portraits in which their eyes were closed and faces contorted into schoolboy grimaces.

A 1928 surrealist commentary reproduced by Pellicer describes the process as "a system of psychoanalysis via image . . . The first strip surprises you as you struggle to find the individual you always believed yourself to be. After the second strip, and throughout all the many strips that follow, while you may do your best to play the superior individual, the original type, the dark fascinating one, or the monkey, none of the resulting visions will fully correspond to what you want to see in yourself."

Perhaps the most famous exponent of photobooth art was Andy Warhol, who used it in his explorations of self as celebrity. In typically narcissistic imagery from the 1960s, Warhol poses in sunglasses or bow tie and tux, hand sometimes blocking the lens as though warding off the paparazzi.

For Warhol, the photobooth image was the ideal tool through which to blur the boundaries between art and popular culture.

More recently, the world's photobooths became makeshift studios-away-from-home for local artists Marty Damhuis and Nadine Allen, aka Miss Teen and Misster Dean. The pair's five-year Photobooth Project began at Tooting Broadway tube station in London in 1999 when, "on a whim", they photographed themselves inside a nearby booth. Pleased with the results, they vowed that every week for the next five years, together or apart and wherever they happened to be in the world, they would find a photobooth and take a strip of images.

Today, in his Brunswick kitchen, Damhuis looks back over the extraordinarily varied images they produced and explains that, along with a cheap creative tool and a certain competitive impetus, the project provided the discipline of a weekly deadline. Coupled with the logistical challenge of finding a booth in each new town that Damhuis visited was the psychological burden of being regularly photographed.

"I don't like my photo being taken generally," he says. "It's a bit like the indigenous idea of taking away the spirit of the person or of the situation or moment.

"Photographs have shown me that I'm not greatly photogenic. I don't even use mirrors much. I've collected more individual photos of myself through (the Photobooth Project) than I have [otherwise]. I found that really quite hard, and there are some photobooth images where I'm really not happy to be there."

Despite this, he likes "being able to look back and draw on those things". "There's a narrative embedded in each of these strips. It's an amazing visual diary for me."

As the project progressed, the pair's storytelling instincts emerged in comic-style strips that are at times crammed with props. One of his favourites was taken while he was staying in Boston with a friend whose mother "had these stuffed chickadees that I particularly liked".

After trawling the local craft warehouses, Damhuis set up a series of garden scenes in which a toy bird jumps about on a white picket fence, surrounded by plastic flowers, before disappearing altogether in the final frame.

In other strips, Damhuis and Allen pose as cleaners, complete with pump sprays and kitchen wipes, or undress, "shower" and shave before a lens that stands in for the bathroom mirror. One elaborate series couples imagery and text to tell the story of a homeless woman who finds a wedding dress and is transformed into a princess.

Throughout the project, Damhuis was surprised that, for the most part, passersby left them alone.

"Somewhere like Broadway, you're at the top of an escalator and there'd be all these people coming past you, and at times there'd be a store of props. We've done naked a lot, and that's been quite a surprise too, the lack of interference."

At times, the pair invited friends ? often fellow artists ? to make the weekly photostrip, so that Damhuis became both participant and observer of the transformation that takes place when the curtain is drawn.

"Being able to close that curtain allows you to distance yourself from the world," he says. "It becomes a place of freedom and fantasy. There's nobody directing you. It's a very private experience.

"Because the photobooth is stripped back . . . there are multifarious ways of documenting yourself. It's quite like the Tardis. Anything can happen in there."

Photobooth by Raynal Pellicer, Thames&Hudson, $55, will be released in March.

Contributed by Brian