Future of the old photo booth not so picture perfect

The Age (Australia) 1/29/2011
by Lindy Percival


ALAN Adler might just be the most photographed man in Melbourne. His mugshot has appeared on photo booths across the city - evidence not of a life on the run but of a business that began 38 years ago when he spotted an advertisement in The Age for two self-contained, do-it-yourself photographic studios. Since then, he - and his family - have sat smiling, grimacing or staring into countless automatic lenses.

Examples of his prolific self-portraiture can be seen on two photo booths at the Elizabeth Street end of Flinders Street Station and the man himself can sometimes be spotted there, behind the half-curtain.

Servicing his black-and-white analog photo booths involves refilling assorted tanks from the bottles of chemicals he carries inside a battered shopping trolley, then churning out his own $4 test-run photo strips.

"I love fixing things," he says. "I'm a motor mechanic by trade so I thought my skills would suit the needs of the machines. Most of those cabinets I've built myself."

Along with three others around Melbourne, the Flinders Street booths are all that remain of a small but successful empire that, at one stage, had 16 booths. Time, and the march of his digital competitors, have taken their toll.

"Ten years ago we had a really good business," Mr Adler says. He would start work at 8 o'clock in the morning and get home about 10 at night.

"Until the $1 coin came in, we weren't making a lot of money; it was hard to find people wandering around with four 20-cent coins in their pockets. I used to have a machine at Spencer Street Station and I'd have a pack on my back full of 20-cent coins; when the $1 coin came in we started making money, and when the $2 coin came in, we really started making money. But that lasted only about five years."

In a garage beside Mr Adlers' home, disused booths are now storage cabinets. Others ended up at the tip, including one egg-shaped classic that would have made retro buffs dizzy.

Mr Adler is not sentimental about the booths. "I've already dumped seven or eight (colour booths) down the tip because they're virtually worthless. There's no paper and no chemicals."

Among other memorabilia at the family home are snapshots of unknown subjects whose photos became jammed in the machinery, including one revealing strip of a man who bared more than teeth during his time behind the curtain. "I don't care what they do inside the booth, it's none of my business," chuckles Mr Adler. "The anonymity is part of the fun of it."

For the most part, though, the booths are frequented by fully clothed twosomes - either young female friends or courting couples wanting a memento of a particularly happy day. "Eighty per cent of our customers are young girls," Mr Adler says. One girl told him: "I love living in Melbourne because they have black and white photo booths."

But at 78, Mr Adler acknowledges that the family business is likely to end with him.

"We're having trouble getting paper at the moment. I've got a couple of months' supply and I'm hoping I get some more, but it's becoming very expensive ?

"We'll keep going for another couple of years probably. But I'd sooner be playing with my grandchildren than playing with photo booths."

Contributed by Brian