Strangers on a frame

Boston Globe 6/28/2003
by Irene Sege

A show of photo-booth pictures provides tiny but intimate windows into mysterious lives

WINCHESTER - Tucked discreetly among the 775 photo-booth pictures hanging at the Griffin Museum of Photography's new exhibit is a strip of four images of a woman - chin-length, dirty-blond hair, wide blue eyes, middle age still looming in her future - playfully posing with a raven-haired older man. She rests her chin on his shoulder, then her cheek, then kisses his cheek and, finally, smiling, accepts a kiss on her nose.

Who is she? Who is he? Where are they? There's an easy familiarity to these pictures that suggests they know each other well. Or maybe they're two strangers who met at a carnival and fell in love on the Ferris wheel. Such is the beauty, and the mystery, of the photo booth.

Just sit on the stool, close the curtain, slip in the requisite fee (now $3), stare into the lens, and - flash, flash, flash, flash - in an instant, a self-portrait is created and an impulse preserved. In four minutes, out comes a strip of four pictures, each frame resembling a giant postage stamp rather than a conventional photograph. Anchored in time by hairdos and fashions, yet untethered in space by the blank rear wall of the booth itself, old photo-booth pictures are invitations to imagine other people's lives without the distraction of Big Ben or Big Sur in the background.

Babbette Hines, who is 35 and works in an art bookstore in Santa Monica, Calif., finds the invitation so enticing that she's collected thousands of photo-booth pictures from flea markets and friends. A selection of her trove, spanning more than 75 years, is on the walls of the Winchester museum, and a somewhat different mix of more than 700 frames is in her book "Photobooth," published last year by Princeton Architectural Press.

That's Hines with her filmmaker boyfriend, Carlos Grasso, 13 years her senior, in the strip mentioned above. For all that meets the eye, they could be on the Santa Monica pier, not far from her bungalow. In fact, they were in a train station in Spain, on a rainy day five years ago, which explains why they both look a little damp.

Hines's fascination with photo booths evolved from the snapshot collection she started in high school. "I would go to all these antique stores and junk shops," she says. "I just started picking them up." A decade later, she was rifling through a box of her grandmother's old photographs when she stumbled on a photo-booth picture of her mother as a girl.

"I had a seed. Then I had an idea. Now I have an obsession. I stopped counting at 3,000," she says, reached by telephone just before she headed east for the show, which opened Thursday. "You choose the things you're going to love, and then you surprise yourself by how much you love them. It's something I've spent a long time thinking about in a way that's completely dorky."

Photo booths were once the staple of amusement parks and Woolworth stores. In the years after World War II, there were 30,000 in this country alone, says Gary Gulley of the Texas- based Photo-Me USA. Today his company has 2,000, he says, and other smaller firms also have some. In 1964, Andy Warhol made his first self-portraits based on photo-booth snapshots of himself.

As much the means to remember a mood as a moment, the photo-booth picture captures the sailor with his gal, the pals acting goofy. As much a look in the mirror as a look at the lens, the image can have the same unguarded quality as a girl primping at her vanity, trying on sultry looks and silly faces when nobody else is looking.

"I love these tiny moments people record in their lives," Hines says. "It's so easy for me to imagine their stories. I was always drawn to these times and places that weren't mine. "Some of them are so unbelievably beautiful I think they stand with the finest photographers of our time. Some of them are dorky and sweet, and I love them."

One shows a pretty woman with a less-than-handsome man. "But he has this humongous grin, and you can imagine that he's a lot of fun, a joker, a storyteller, and he got this really pretty girl, and she's entranced by him," she says. Others show one woman squeezed behind another. "You imagine she's the shy one, the one who waits for the boys to look at her."

Or there's the well-dressed mother with the elaborate hairdo and the gawky daughter. "She's still finding her personal style. Her mother has it totally together," Hines muses. "Then her mother totally looks like she drinks. She's slightly slurry. You can imagine some of them as barflies or as working stiffs or lonely people.

"I'm convinced that most of what I imagine is wrong."

There are pictures on the walls of the Griffin that Blake Fitch, the museum's executive director, says take her back to her days as a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago, play-acting with friends in a photo booth in a bar near campus. One strip shows a man, the villain in this minidrama, with his hands around the neck of his damsel in distress.

Courtney Crandall, a retired advertising executive who sits on the museum's board, walks into the exhibit, and, seeing images of young soldiers staring straight into the camera's eye, is reminded of another photo booth in Chicago long ago.

"In World War II," he recalls, "18-year-old kids were yanked out of the home. You'd end up on the train in ill-fitting uniforms. Everybody would take one of these things and mail them home. It was the first time they saw you in your uniform."

Hines likes one shot of two dashing soldiers with unlit cigarettes dangling from their lips. "It's easy to imagine them out on the town, hoping to get lucky," she says.

Hines has collected photo-booth pictures from friends, one of whom let her rummage through 20 years' worth. Sunday mornings, early, Hines heads to flea markets, searching for more. "It's amazing to me that people let their pictures go," she says.

Weekdays, Hines is a manager at Arcana Books on the Arts, which sells new and out-of-print books. It's an overstuffed store that doesn't have a computer to help the staff answer customer's questions. "I spend so much time around the books," Hines says, "that you absorb the information, which people are not sufficiently impressed by, I have to say."

She lives in sunny California but doesn't enjoy outdoor activities, though she admits to having a bicycle. She is a recent convert to yoga and the owner of two formerly stray cats, Poon and Tang, who reside now in her boyfriend's loft. She says her place - not surprisingly - is furnished with other people's castoffs.

"My inner nerdy, otherworldly qualities would come through even if I did roller blade," she says. "I shop and I spend a lot of time wandering around in my head and imagining other people's lives. I have a boyfriend, and I travel as much as I can. Don't make me sound like I spend all my time in attics without ever seeing the sun, but that is what I like the best."

"Photobooth" runs through Sept. 12 at the Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Rd., Winchester. Open 12-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for seniors, free for members and children under 12. Call 781- 729-1158 or visit www.griffin

Copyright 2003, Boston Globe

Contributed by Brian