The Photobooth: Timeless Self-Portrait Vending Machine

by Tim Garrett,, 8/10/2003


There are four questions I am frequently asked, so I will answer them straight away for those of you with limited time: three minutes, no, the 1950s, and yes.

During the course of my 10-year relationship with photoboothsas an artist, enthusiast, business owner, and self-appointed cultural documentarianI've had the opportunity to answer a lot of different questions, but these are asked the most:

    1. The impatient, "How much time before my photo comes out?"
    2. The nervous, "Are there negatives or copies of those photos?"
    3. The inquisitive, "From what era are these booths?"
    4. And finally, the number one question I hear,"Have you ever seen [the 2001 French film] Amlie?" (Seen it, loved it, highly recommend it.)

The Photobooth is a cultural icon, having survived as a functional part of the American landscape for over 80 years. Quite amazing when you think about it. What other technology has remained unchanged, yet still vibrant, for such a long time? A quick ebay search reveals photobooth photos taken throughout the past eight decades, and they still look great. The photobooth has been the place anyone, despite their economic status, could afford to take high quality photos. It has recorded chance meetings, spontaneous moments, and new love for generations. The booth has also been a fixture in more utilitarian pursuits: the procurement of countless ID and passport photos. As a recent testimony to the significance of its cultural cachet, Apple Computer (perhaps the epitome of corporate cool) designed an interactive photography software application that ships with every new Mac. They call it Photo Booth.

The last fifteen years have seen the introduction of digital photobooths, but I have to be honest, I'm not a fan. There has yet to exist a digital booth that comes close to its chemical counterpart in terms of simplicity and image quality. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a little history.

New York City. The year is 1926. A 33 year-old slugger by the name of George Herman "Babe" Ruth has been lighting up the scoreboards all year and drawing record numbers to the three-year-old Yankee Stadium. While the Yanks and Cardinals are duking it out in a 7-game World Series that October, a 33 year-old inventor by the name of Anatol Josepho is about to attract a similar crowd to his modest storefront just a few miles away in lower Manhattan. Mr. Josepho has just completed his four-year project: a coin-operated portrait vending machine he calls Photomaton. In a few weeks, curious New Yorkers will line up around the block waiting to pay twenty-five cents for a strip of eight sepia portraits. Next year, Babe Ruth will hit a record-breaking 60 homeruns and command a staggering $52,000 a year salary. The same year, Anatol Josepho will sell his invention for $1 million.

Josepho's claim on the photobooth's invention is not so clear-cut. While it is true that Mr. Josepho, a Siberian immigrant, filed a patent in 1923 for an "automatic camera for taking timed sequences of portraits," there were others who had similar products and inventions at the same time. Patents abound for similar automatic portrait machines including a patent filed as early as 1918 by SJ Sussman for a "photographic developing machine." Josepho was simply the first to bring a mostly-reliable photobooth to market, and create an economically viable business around it. Instead of film, the camera in his booth utilized a light-sensitive strip of paper. After the paper was exposed, it was sent through a series of rollers and subjected to a chemical reversal process. In a reversal process, the negative image is developed first, then is chemically "reversed" leaving a positive image behind. (this is similar to how slide film is processed, see here for a detailed explanation) There is no negative left in the machine, nor is there a copy made. Each photo is one-of-a-kind.

The photobooth received an internal redesign in 1941 when Phillip S. Allen filed his patent for a new and improved photobooth. The look and feel of the booth remained unchanged, as did the chemistry, but the internal mechanism changed in one significant way: instead of processing the exposed strip through rollers, the chemistry and washes were arranged on a carousel of tubs. The exposed paper would then be agitated in each of these tubs by a mechanical carrier arm before being delivered to the outside. The company that built itself around Allen's redesign is a company that still exists today: Photo-Me.

Through years of growth and various acquisitions, Photo-Me and its sister companies became the dominant player in the photobooth world. At their peak, they had nationwide contracts with Woolworth's and K-Mart, as well as numerous malls, arcades, and shopping centers. Photo-Me eventually introduced a color chemical booth that used the same camera and development mechanism, only with different paper and chemistry. This allowed them to easily convert their black and white booths to color.

Due to this conversion, the eventual closing of Woolworth's and Kmart, and the development of digital alternatives there are now fewer than 150 black and white photobooths in North America.

Despite all odds, the black and white photobooth continues to find new audiences. Photobooths are showing up in movies, print ads, commercials, and in the homes of select Hollywood directors. The antiquated booth has garnered recent stories in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Enquirer. MTV installed a photobooth in their Times Square Studio, and Neiman Marcus featured them in their holiday catalog. The most surprising development, however, is the photobooth's new life as a party rental item. The photobooth has become a popular item at wedding receptions, corporate parties, and celebrity functions. Guests mug for the camera, create instant party favors, and leave a whimsical photo album for the hosts. The photobooth packs a nostalgic punch, and is instantly recognizable, immediately accessible, and eternally entertaining.

Perhaps it is these qualities that have drawn artists to the photobooth. Andy Warhol used the photobooth extensively in his work. In fact, many of his silkscreened portraits used photobooth photos as their source imagery, including his well-known self-portrait that later became a postage stamp. He was known to frequent the photobooth in the subway station across the street from his famous Factory. Warhol might have been the most visible artist to incorporate the photobooth into his work, but there are others who have pushed the medium in other directions. Liz Rideal, Jan Wenzel, and Herman Costa to name a few. Large photobooth collages typify Rideal's work, whereas Wenzel creates tightly constructed scenes that each span multiple photostrips. Costa prefers smaller pieces that are both playful and profound.

What is it about the photobooth that continues to draw people into its cramped quarters? How did it endure the passage of time and survive the digital revolution? How is it still relevant in a world with cameras on every device? I think it is a combination of factors. The small sitting area, the lack of a photographer, and the closable curtain create a private and intimate space that inspires uninhibited images. The immediacy of the process, and impeccable quality of the photos create readymade heirlooms. The affordable price-per-sitting encourages repeat visits and experimentation. In my mind, however, the most fascinating characteristic of the photobooth is its intractable sense of narrative. From an early age, we are trained to connect disparate images into a related chain of events. Comic strips rely on our ability to do so. Standardized achievement tests reward us for doing so. We intuitively understand the black border between each frame signifies the passage of time. Within this void, there is movement, and when we look at a photostrip, we see story. I like to think of each strip as the shortest film ever made.

Even though I understand each mechanical whirring and chemical stirring inside the photobooth, when I see a photostrip emerge from the side of the booth, I am giddy with delight. Instant art. Pure magic.

Tim Garrett is an artist who lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife Heather. The only photos he has of his grandparents during their 1930s courtship were taken in a photobooth. He operates a photobooth rental business that supports his art habit, and he is the co-creator (along with Los Angeles-based film archivist Brian Meacham) of, the world's most comprehensive photobooth resource.

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Contributed by Brian