Photo opportunity

Colo. Springs Gazette 7/29/2004
by Bill Reed


The photo booth at the Penny Arcade in Manitou Springs looks like a time machine to the 1950s.

There's the faded wood paneling on the outside. The turquoise- blue plastic on the inside. The stool you spin until you're eye- level with the camera lens. And the familiar strip of four black-and- white pictures that are spit out the side.

The only thing that's changed is the price: Countless coats of paint have intervened between the 25 cents of yesteryear and the $2 of today.

But $2 isn't about to deter Marla Porting. To her, this really is a time machine.

She grew up in Axtell, Kan., and every summer until she was 18, her family of eight drove to Manitou Springs. They stayed at the Mel Haven Lodge, played Skee-Ball with the dimes they saved all summer, ate saltwater taffy at Patsy's Candies and honked under the overpass as they drove into the mountains.

And each summer, Marla and her sisters would jump into this same photo booth to pull faces for the tireless eye.

In a pilgrimage to her past, Porting brought her family back to Manitou Springs last week. She was astonished to find the photo booth still operating.

While her husband and sons played games, Porting and her 8-year- old daughter, Bethany, climbed in to make a memory together.

"I used to do it when I was here as a little girl, and now she can do it," Porting said. "I remember getting in with my sisters and making silly faces."

She's not alone. The photo booth is an enduring presence on the American landscape; it's a beloved bit of kitsch that never seems to lose its appeal.


The photo booth was patented in 1889, when vending machines were the big new thing. But mechanical difficulties and low quality kept the invention from taking off.

That changed in 1925, when Anatol Josepho created the "Photomaton." Josepho sold the rights to his invention for $1 million to a company determined to spread the machines coast to coast, which it did.

"You need no longer be dull in Boston if you have twenty-five cents and a face," wrote Photo Era magazine in December 1927. "Go to the new Photomaton, in Filene's Basement, some noon and see how romance and adventure have been injected into the hitherto grim business of having your pictures made."

It's no surprise that photo booths made a splash when they appeared. The surprise is that, 75 years later -- in this age of digital and disposable cameras -- the machines are still around.

The bottom line is that it's hard to walk by one without crawling in.

Photo booths are all over Colorado Springs: at the Garden of the Gods Trading Post and World Arena, at The Citadel mall and Chapel Hills Mall, at Joyrides Family Fun Center.

Most of these machines are the newfangled variety that spit out sheets of color images, or 16 stickers for those who fancy the idea of their face on an adhesive surface.

The fight between old and new is most pronounced at the Penny Arcade, where the classic machine sits next to two digital models.

Alan Kerns, owner of the Penny Arcade, believes his vintage machine was built in 1950.

His father, Jack Kerns, owned hundreds of photo booths in five states at the peak of their popularity. But the family sold the photo booth business in 1976, keeping only the one machine at the Manitou arcade.

Today, two companies control the photo booth business nationally. Photo-Me USA operates 1,500 old machines across the country, refurbishing them rather than building new ones. Fantasy Entertainment owns 3,500 digital machines, including many in this area.

It's a far cry from the 30,000 photo booths that dotted America in the post-World War II era, but it's also proof this dinosaur is far from extinct.

Kerns credits young women with keeping the photo booth alive.

"Girls always like photos, even though they're never happy when they come out because they think they look ugly or stupid," Kerns said. "There are girls I've seen who come back once or twice a week and take their pictures."

Then again, maybe the photo booth isn't about looks.

"They help you remember the moment," said Kourtney Collins, 16, of Houston, who was posing with her 13-year-old sister, Katelyn, at the Penny Arcade's color machine.

"And it's great when they turn out good. I just try anything that doesn't make me look like a dork."


The photo booth captures a moment in its subjects' lives, and it provides a snapshot of America. With the promise of "only 3 minutes" for a photo, it says we are a people devoted to instant gratification.

We also seem to be a people devoted to frivolity. Photo-Me estimates 90 percent of photo booth images in other countries are used for passports and official documents, but 90 percent of photo booth images in America are pure fun.

The 1927 article in Photo Era magazine said it all. The photo booth represents "romance and adventure" and a sense of oh-why-not spontaneity.

You can truly be yourself in front of the nonjudgmental eye of this machine.

In fact, you can't help but be yourself because it flashes unpredictably, catching you a teeny bit unawares each time. The shots are candid enough to be genuine, and the direct flash mercifully blows out imperfections.

Ultimately, that's what a photo booth is selling -- a little piece of yourself for a few bucks, an idealized piece of yourself. A memory, a flash in time, an artifact proving that, at least for that moment, you were happy.


Pop culture and the people who define it recognize the endless appeal of the photo booth. How so?

The plot of the hopelessly romantic movie "Amélie" (2001) hinged on photo booths, as Amélie falls in love with a mysterious photo-booth- image collector. But the classic photo booth movie still is Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960), as the titular character records her emotional descent in a photo booth.

Publishers recently have come out with at least two books on photo booths: "Photobooth," a collection of historical photos pulled together by Babbette Hines; and "MTV Photobooth," a collection from the photo booth on the set of "Total Request Live."

Photo-Me reports that those cinematic purveyors of cool, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, are among the celebrities who have bought photo booths for their homes.

Copyright 2004, Colorado Springs Gazette

Contributed by Brian