Why Hollywood Says Cheese

New York Times 3/6/2005
by Strawberry Saroyan


Photo caption: Lizzie Garrett, center and Matt Mettler, right, and their friends gather around the photo booth at the Edendale Grill in Los Angeles. Photo by Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES--Annabella Rosemurgy, a 25-year-old actress - "but don't tell my agent, who thinks I'm 18" - and her best friend, Rebecca Oranges, 28, a hairstylist, arrived at the Short Stop bar here on a Saturday night for a drink and, possibly, a flirt. After grabbing a Jack and Coke (for Ms. Rosemurgy) and a Corona (for Ms. Oranges), the two surveyed the crowd. But it was only when they entered the nightspot's photo booth that they hit their stride, air-kissing the camera and striking favorite poses like the one they call "the Charlie's Angels," mock-guns pointing.

"The photo booth comes before boys," Ms. Rosemurgy said. "We were like little cats looking in a fishbowl, waiting for our pictures." Three $3 photo strips later, Ms. Rosemurgy had an idea: How about a visit to Lucky Strike Lanes, where there is a booth that was a hit with none other than Paris Hilton. "The booth there is the best," Ms. Rosemurgy said.

Formerly relegated to passport and visa offices (where they have now been replaced by digitized versions or an actual person with an actual camera), the old-fashioned photo booth is making a comeback. Bars and restaurants in San Francisco and New York are using them to attract customers, and individuals are buying them for their homes. But perhaps not surprisingly it is in Hollywood where they have become the toy du jour, with celebrities installing them as permanent party gimmicks for guests who never tire of seeing themselves in close-up. "There's no better foreplay than to have someone dive deeper into their own vanity on their own turf," said Dave Navarro, the guitarist with Jane's Addiction whose recent memoir, "Don't Try This at Home," features his photo-booth portrait on the book jacket and many photo strips inside.

For more than a year Mr. Navarro kept an old photo booth in his house to document visitors for the memoir, and though he has relegated it to the garage, his wife, Carmen Electra, won't let him get rid of it altogether.

"She thinks it's art," he said on the phone one recent morning from their home. "Is that what you said, honey?" Ms. Electra, an actress and a guest performer with the Pussycat Dolls, said yes, it was.

Photo booths, which were introduced in the 1920's, when strips cost 25 cents, are not created equal. Those with black and white film are the most desirable among clubgoers and the Hollywood elite, and they must be "dip 'n' dunks," as they are known in the business, which were manufactured before the early 80's or so.

Patti Peck, the owner of Edendale Grill Restaurant and Mixville Bar in the Silver Lake area here, which has had a booth since 2003 that has been a draw for actors like Jared Leto and Jorja Fox, explained the dip 'n' dunk process. "Inside, there's a carousel of little different chemicals, and the little piece of paper gets dipped in one solution and then the next solution and then 'Yoink!' " she said, mimicking the sound of a photo strip arriving. "It's kind of magical."

Brett Ratner, the film director whose credits include "After the Sunset," is also enamored of the machines. His vintage booth was the first purchase he made after buying Hilhaven Lodge, the former home of both Ingrid Bergman and Kim Novak. He said the booth is invariably the life of the party. He is at work on a sequel to "Hilhaven Lodge: The Photo Booth Pictures," his book of machine-made snaps.

Quentin Tarantino installed a photo booth at his house in the Hollywood Hills last year. Mr. Ratner said Mr. Tarantino got the idea from him after he saw his photo booth at the birthday party he gave for his former fiance, the actress Rebecca Gayheart. After Rob Zombie, a rock music figure and film director, rented booths for both his wedding and his birthday party, he was hooked, too: Mr. Zombie is inquiring about buying his own. (According to Photo-Me USA of Grand Prairie, Tex., the largest supplier of old-fashioned photo booths, purchases cost $3,500 to $9,000; rentals start at $2,000.)

Photo booths even found their way into the movie awards season. At the Golden Globes show in January, Pat O'Brien, the host of the CBS celebrity program "The Insider," greeted the Globe winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx by shuttling them into a booth. " 'Let's do a smiley one,' " he recalled Mr. DiCaprio saying. Mr. O'Brien also made funny faces with Hilary Swank and Annette Bening. (Ms. Bening's husband, Warren Beatty, waited patiently outside the booth.)

Jamie Lee Curtis, who rented a booth for her 18-year-old daughter Anne's birthday party at the Hyatt in January, said, "There's something about the anonymity of a photo booth - that you get to pull the curtain and do whatever you want - that is very provocative and freeing. And dangerous."

The Short Stop's owner, Oliver Wilson, knows what Ms. Curtis was talking about. "You see people going absolutely bananas in there," he said. "There's a certain sexuality to it. Among the things he has seen: "Girls taking off their shirts. These are, like, good girls who have jobs and stuff. And guys taking down their pants." Matthew Barnard, a bartender at the Short Stop, recalled, "I had to kick a guy out one night because he was naked in there."

Those silly faces and sexy poses come naturally in the curtained privacy of the photo booth. So does romance. Patti Peck at Edendale Grill remembered a marriage proposal that took place in Edendale's booth. "He wanted the absolute excited look on her face - and he got it," she said. And Ms. Curtis said she had photo booth pictures of her and her husband, the director, writer and actor Christopher Guest, as the sole adornment on their 20th wedding anniversary party invitations last December.

Perhaps Hallie Faben, a 24-year-old film editor, has the most novel use for photo booths. She says they can come in handy in the dating game. After stopping by the Short Stop on a first date, she recounted, her companion suggested a whirl in the machine. "But our body language was kind of weird," Ms. Faben said, describing the photo strip, "so I took it as a sign that we shouldn't date."

Patented in 1925 by a Siberian immigrant, Anatol Josepho, photo booths were initially known as Photomatons, according to Babbette Hines, whose 2002 art book, "Photobooth," showcases some of her thousands of photo strips, which date back to the 20's and include G.I.'s heading off to World War II posing with their sweethearts. When Mr. Josepho sold the patent for $1 million in 1927 and the deal was written about on the front page of The New York Times the machines became famous, attracting the governor of New York, Al Smith, and Senator-elect Robert Wagner to the country's first booth, which was installed in Manhattan.

By the 30's the booths were at fairs, carnivals, department stores and in train stations across the United States, said Nakki Garonin, who is writing a history of photo booths. Then as now they were a way to playfully capture one's image for little more than the cost of several ice cream cones. They also acquired the patina of chic: in the 60's Andy Warhol installed one at his Factory, where Baby Jane Holzer and Edie Sedgwick posed in it.

The popularity of photo booths today can be attributed to a number of factors. Their appearance in the film "Amlie," nostalgia for all things retro and even, according to Ms. Hines, the recent appearance of Japanese photo-sticker booths in America have contributed to it. But Gary Gulley, a regional manager at Photo-Me, said a serendipitous mention propelled the fad. Photo-Me's services were listed in a bridal issue of InStyle magazine about three years ago, Mr. Gulley said, and after that Hollywood inquiries increased substantially.

In a city where many are enamored of their images, finding an old-fashioned dip 'n' dunk booth is like striking gold. "I have Paris Hilton in every look you can imagine," Mr. Ratner said. He estimated that Ms. Hilton took about 100 strips of herself at his home. Aficionados say the clincher is the glamorous look of the photo strips themselves. "It's the very bright flash that makes everybody look beautiful," Ms. Curtis explained. "It's like movie-star light."

Copyright 2005, New York Times

Contributed by Brian