Why Photo Booths Still Make Us Smile

by Martin Azevedo,, 9/22/2014


Sometimes we need the unpredictability of the anti-selfie

Brian hid the small cardboard sign in his jacket. This moment with Aimee at San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, a haven for antique arcade amusements, would be much more than just a vacation highlight. Within twenty-five seconds, he would: 1) flash the front of it until the camera clicked, 2) hide the sign as he and Aimee rushed to switch places, 3) as she jumped out, squeeze back into the booth and flip the sign, and 4) stash the sign as she again took his place in the booth.

He spent the next three minutes biting his lip with his secret again concealed against his chest. Had she noticed the sign as he ducked in and out of the booth? Had he held it upside up? Were his hands in the way? And, if it all worked as planned, what would she say?

The small strip of photographs fell into the rack, still wet with the fragrance of a darkroom laboratory. Aimee lifted it for the first look.

At the top was an image of Brian, his smile bursting with a secret he could barely contain. He held a sign with the words “WILL YOU.”

The picture below that was of her own face and hands, clowning to celebrate their vacation with a tag-team photo booth stunt.

The third picture was of Brian, and the words “MARRY ME?”

The last photograph was again of Aimee, smiling contently. Brian had already proposed to her—this woman in a picture—but she wouldn’t know it for another three minutes.

Our grandparents grew up in an age of booths: tiny chambers in noisy places where phone calls or photographs demanded privacy. Now the telephones and cameras have shrunk to pocket-size and have escaped from their booth captivity to infest every commuter train and movie theater. Cell-phone pictures immortalize bad hair, cathedral ceilings, bachelorette parties and latte art. The word “selfie” emerged to celebrate this newfound liberation, since a face portrait no longer required a photographer, or a studio, or a mirror, and when the snapshot had been captured the camera could also provide directions to the nearest wine bar. It turns out that each of us has always been his or her own favorite photographic subject, and now we have the pictures to prove it.

Rotary dial telephones and drive-up film developers have long since disappeared, but photo booths can still be found in bars, arcades and shopping centers. Some play on the retro appeal of technology that hasn’t changed since the 1930s—or at least the experience of that technology, now simulated with digital cameras and modern printers. Newer machines insert cartoon images or digital patterns onto the photos, print duplicate copies and create stickers to cover schoolbooks and cell phone cases. Yet old-fashioned photochemical photo booths remain in active use around the world.

Digital photographs are sharp, colorful and can be taken and retaken anywhere, at any time, for free. Images can be duplicated thousands of times, precisely modified, backed up to the cloud and shared immediately with everyone everywhere.

A visit to an aging photochemical picture booth, by contrast, costs three to five bucks and produces a single strip of paper. The camera is fixed in place. Two people make the booth feel crowded. The round seat (spin it to adjust the height) has supported thousands of posteriors throughout the decades, often two or three or four at a time.

Logic or frugality might send these narcissistic couples and trios and quartets off to find a blank wall to frame their cell-phone snaps—but logic doesn’t create romances, or vacations, or memories. Shy teenagers may squeeze together for the first time behind a photo booth curtain. Closeted gay couples of decades past visited photo booths to find treasured moments of intimacy and a discreet way to record them. A curious single could pose for a selfie without looking like he’s posing for a selfie. And in a world where sabotaging a stranger’s photo is a national pastime, a private booth still provides shelter from photobombs.

“People use that thing all the time,” one bartender told me of a retro-styled digital booth in a corner behind a pool table at Lucky 13 in Alameda, Calif. “When people get drunk, they want to act stupid where the only evidence is two little strips of paper.”

The lighting is even, the framing is simple, and the background only turns the viewer’s attention to the foreground. The booth is in control, so the images are not self-portraits: Every picture is an anti-selfie. The subjects in the frame know they will be photographed, but they don’t know exactly when. They aren’t being studied by a photographer or judged by a parent or noticed by a sidewalk full of pedestrians. Out in the world, we are competing, playing roles, struggling to meet expectations—but sitting in a photo booth, we are only who we are.

A strange thing happens outside a photo booth. Customers wait for their photographs—up to five minutes in some cases, an unthinkable delay for technological gratification by digital standards. A strip of photographs falls into the slot and is quickly lifted out. And each of the images, in turn, are examined. People look at every one of them.

Many digital photographs are reviewed, compared, cropped, weeded, and deleted—yet many more, it seems, are taken, backed up and forgotten. A single pose holding a new baby or visiting a famous landmark might result in a dozen fumbled attempts to balance angle, lighting, expression, hair and background. How many of those photos are ever seen? Are they sorted, preserved, reviewed, treasured?

A digital image may be backed up a thousand times and parked in the cloud to spend eternity unseen by human eyes, but a photo strip from a museum picture booth arrives in the slot as if all the infinite formless possibilities of digital reality were incarnated into a single physical object. A photo strip exists, and someone will look at it.

When Tim and his fiancée Heather announced their engagement, they sent cards which folded inward to display two strips of photo booth pictures: four images each of the future bride and groom on opposite sides of the card. When the folds were lifted open, two more photos strips showed the couple turning, moving—and crowding together into a single frame.

Growing up in Missouri, Tim and his brother mapped out photo-strip art projects to be created at a shopping-center picture booth in a nearby town. Four images, taken roughly eight seconds apart, would inevitably tell a story: of an odd weeknight in a roadhouse bar, a promising flirtation at the state fair, an afternoon on the boardwalk with four friends. Two or three strips placed side by side could expand the story into the surreal: a rope might be pulled diagonally between frames, a ball thrown from one and caught in another, a single curved pipe multiplied into an elegant pattern as the rows and columns were placed together. And throughout these experiments was woven the hilarious unseen choreography necessary to capture the right cascade of images, in immediate succession, in the same tiny space.

The wedding was only days away when Tim realized he needed a photo booth. A hired photographer would take the standard family photos, but a booth would allow every guest or combination of guests to find their own expressions, their own moments, to share with the happy couple.

Tim called companies in increasingly distant cities—but at the time, none was willing to drop off a working booth for a one-day rental. If any wedding in memory had featured a rented photo booth, it seemed, no trend had been launched.

Rushed but determined, Tim raised the stakes and bought his first antique photochemical machine. The cumbersome delivery arrived on his final day as a bachelor—and to the chagrin of his fiancée, the groom prepared for his wedding by spending the night before repairing and restoring a photo booth.

In the years since, Tim bought and restored more photo booths. Some he converted to digital, some he used for art projects, and many he rented out. He built and sold a photo booth rental company. He created a photo booth app, Pocketbooth, to put the photo booth experience into the hands of anyone with a smart phone.

Tim’s research introduced him to another photo-booth fanatic who was determined to create a repository of photo-booth information and lore. His new friend’s name: Brian. Though they continue to live in different states, the two now run, an online resource for enthusiasts and the photo-booth curious.

Years have passed since Tim and Heather’s wedding. A few of the guests who visited the booth are no longer around. Among Tim’s most treasured possessions is an album of photo panels from that exhausting, wonderful day.

Trends and technologies and moments come and go. The digital printouts may fade, and the discs where they reside will someday expire. But those photochemical strips last a long time.


Martin Azevedo has contributed to McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Rolling Stone. You can follow him on Twitter at @AzevedoWords

Contributed by Brian