The Photo Booth: A Portrait Studio of One's Own

New York Times 8/3/2003
by Vicki Goldberg

WHEN the self-portrait studio came to the amusement park in the late 1920's, people were appropriately amused. When it came to the railroad station, travelers considered it as good as a vacation, and when it came to Woolworth's, people were glad to find it cheap. It was called a photo booth. Just a little room with a lens and nobody but you in it to tell you to smile or to make you self-conscious, it was a quick chance for some narcissistic fun while no one was looking, and it had an aura of secrecy and daring. In 1927 a photo magazine said: "You need no longer be dull in Boston if you have 25 and a face. 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 picture taken."

This phenomenon was invented in 1925 by a Siberian immigrant to America named Anatol Josepho, and in 1927 a group of businessmen bought it for the equivalent of $10 million in today's money. The adventurous little machine was soon headed across the ocean to edify Europeans as well. So says Babbette Hines in "Photobooth" (Princeton Architectural Press). Ms. Hines collects photo-booth images, and hundreds of them, ranging from the late 1920's or early 1930's to the present, are currently on display at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Mass., in a show called, of course, "Photobooth," which is on view through Sept. 12.

Photo booths were portrait studios for the poor, but the rich and, at least in the beginning, celebrities liked them, too. Most of the people in this show try to look like themselves or better, and a few try to look even better than that by trying on different outfits and expressions. Mothers with children generally attempt to look ecstatic, babies are indifferent and little children either puzzled or tearful. In general people look solemnly or smilingly respectable, but a session was so cheap and dclass that lots of sitters clowned for the birdie. Some mug or strike silly poses, one woman puckers up, a young boy crosses his eyes, a man pretends to strangle his lady friend.

It was Andy Warhol, a crucial figure in the art world's love affair with the vernacular, who saw the grander possibilities of the photo booth and turned it into a portrait studio that furnished him with models for his paintings. Warhol liked photo booths because they were hopelessly vernacular. No one could accuse a photo booth of aspirations to high art. And yet, in 1927, someone did think it was sufficiently elevated to merit an art exhibit in the East Village in New York, a fact that has been unaccountably ignored by art historians.

The photo booth came along at about the same time as the automat, both of them designed to save time in a speeded-up world. Josepho's first machines produced a strip of eight photographs in eight minutes, the closest thing to instantaneity before the invention of the Polaroid. In the beginning there were attendants to take your money and tell you how the whole thing worked. Ms. Hines's book says Josepho was a devout socialist and reportedly gave half his fortune to charity and tried to help other inventors with the rest.

Some pictures at the Griffin Museum of Photography come with their own captions, like "Souvenir Los Angeles 1932" or "This Person Wants a Card Call or Letter From YOU!" or "To the One I Love." Some try for a mass-produced kind of elegance, with fancy, painted, studio-type backdrops: trees with snow on the branches, a western barn, palm trees, a curtain drawn back to reveal a rolling landscape. Some are individual images framed in painted metal or cardboard frames; Ms. Hines says they came out of the machine like that. And many are hand colored (by whose hand is unclear), the women and children in them unfailingly sporting toothpaste-pink triangles on their cheeks. (Color film did eventually come to some booths.) Ms. Hines was in touch with one man whose father traveled around with a photo booth in a truck during the Depression; his mother went along to color the pictures. Probably, though, most people tinted their own, for photo-coloring kits were marketed for home use.

Photo booths were immensely popular in World War II when G.I.'s wanted to be remembered in case they didn't come back, and girlfriends wanted their guys to remember them over there. The pictures package nostalgia in series and offer a fashion historian a miniature history of some 50 years of American styles. Hats stay firmly atop men's pates and women's, too, till somewhere around the 1960's. Women's hair is finger waved, then curled, then long and lank to match the hippie men's.

Booths are still around, especially in Europe - there are over 400 in the Paris Metro alone - and, according to the 2001 French film "Amlie," photo-booth pictures can still spark love affairs.

While the French use photo booths mainly to make identification cards, put an artist like Tomoko Sawada into a booth and ID goes down the drain. Ms. Sawada's disguises outnumber the quick-change artist's, the master criminal's and the worst case of Multiple Personality Disorder rolled into one. There are 399 versions of her in head shots - 401 if you count the two that are "really" her - and another 30 in full figure at the Zabriskie Gallery in midtown right now. What's more, each of the 401 head-and-shoulders images is repeated four times, so that you're confronted with 1,604 Tomoko Sawadas, almost all of them not exactly herself. "Tomoko Sawada: Two Photographic Series," through Sept. 6, is the last word on saving face.

The 400 pictures are single photo-booth images rephotographed, multiplied times four and arranged in squares, then fitted together in framed grids of 100 squares each, adding up to a regular rogue's gallery of unprepossessing little women. (The extra four are blown-up pictures of her with her hair closely shaved to accommodate a truly exorbitant supply of wigs.) Her expressions run up and down the scale from blunt to dour to lost, angry, kittenish, babyish, sheepish, dimpling and scholarly, without stopping at forthrightly sexy or openly smiling. In one incarnation she wears what looks like a bifurcated mop on her head, another time she looks like an unmade bed, once she approximates a kitsch Japanese bobble-head doll and yet another time she has obviously smelled something bad in the booth.

For all their deadpan solemnity, these 400 characters in search of an identity are really delightfully silly - chuckle-headed, you might say. How can a single face (or even a single mind) change that much, even if half the changes are ridiculous? The C.I.A. ought to hire this woman.

Ms. Sawada also slyly comments on portrait studios in a series that takes off on the diminishing but still extant Japanese tradition of arranged marriages, in which formal portraits of potential brides are presented by the woman's parents to other families in the hope of finding a suitable groom. She went to a professional studio 30 times as different women, posing in front of a tilted heart. (Did the photographer think he was abetting a fraud or a desperate wallflower?) Sometimes she went traditional and basically demure in a kimono, her mitten-sock toes in sandals delicately pointed inward, looking prim or giggly, smiling or coquettish. Other times she went modern, with blond hair or high boots, platforms, or chunky shoes, once all in black from head to toe with a rose under her chin, once in a pink hat, pink dress, pink gloves, pink stockings and shoes. Kind of makes you wonder what that fetching woman you saw on the Internet dating service really looks like. But with any luck Ms. Sawada should get a host of suitors from these pictures. Whatever will they look like?

Incidentally, there's a booth in the Griffin Museum gallery, so you too can practice the art of photoboothery. I did, and I liked the picture better than many another of me. Just think what I could have done with a wig and a change of clothing.

Copyright 2003, New York Times

Contributed by Brian