I think I could easily name this post, 'A Photobooth Odyssey', or maybe 'Everything You Wanted to Know about Photobooths But Were Afraid to Ask'. I am very envious of Meags Fitzgerald who has written about, in graphic novel format, her lifelong love affair with photobooths. Photobooth: A Biography really is a sort of odyssey as she recounts not only the history of photobooths but also her own use of them in her artwork and as a collector and the time she spent traveling to document remaining machines all over North America and Europe before they disappear entirely. Like so many much-loved, at one time wildly popular and much-used analog devices, they are slowly (sometimes not so slowly anymore) being replaced by more efficient (though in some cases far less charming) digital machines.
Do you remember photobooths? I remember them in malls (when malls were still popular and even they are disappearing these days, too) and surely at some time in my youth I must have had my photo taken in one. It's been ages since I thought about them and it is thanks to Iliana that I came across this book. It is a hefty graphic novel that I had to get via interlibrary loan (thanks to Fort Vancouver Regional Library for loaning it--you will soon have it safely back home again), but photobooths are such a cool concept and I can see exactly the appreciation and affection Meags Fitzgerald has for them. Now I wish I could start a collection of photobooth photos, but they are such a rarity where I live the chance is pretty slim that it is a hobby I could pursue. The author has an enviable collection of photos not only of herself, her family and her friends but of strangers, which were taken throughout the photobooth's long history.
The first photobooth, as we have come to know them, was designed by a Russian immigrant in 1925, whose own life story is an odyssey all its own. Anatol Josephowitz was born in Siberia, had a most unfortunate WWI experience but eventually found his way to America where he married and spent the rest of his life. He created the Photomaton, the first one located in NYC and it began this craze. Eventually the rights were sold in Canada, England and Europe and the machines began popping up all over the place and by WWII everyone, rich or poor (and photobooths were a great social leveler as everyone-more or less-could afford to have a strip of four photos taken in one of the machines) were flocking to the booths to have their portraits taken.
And, of course, one good idea leads to another and one sort of machine to another. At its most popular, the photobooth was ubiquitous and they were used not just for entertainment but for official documentation, even for mugshots and there is a darker footnote in history as they were offered for use in Europe to keep track of the identities of prisoners of war. During the war people were apt to take their pictures as a memento for those going away to war, and for those staying behind. By the 1950s their use began to decline without that feeling of uncertainty that comes with wars people simply didn't worry about having their pictures taken. Prosperity in peacetime has a way of making us lax and by the 1970s disposable cameras and Polaroids had arrived on the scene.
The other problem facing photobooths was the use of chemicals to develop the images in minutes, which have been deemed to be unsafe for the environment. Fewer and fewer companies were making the chemicals or the photopaper and innumerable photobooths were simply destroyed as a matter of progress. I guess the machines were seen as no longer popular and were becoming obsolete. The book was published in 2014 and the author notes certain dates (by the end of 2015 and 2016) when materials are/were likely to have run out, so I wonder what the current state of affairs has become in terms of supplies for the original chemical-bath, dip and dunk machines. Many of the machines have been turned into digital photography booths, but for purists, it is a little sad to think the original-old fashioned photobooths are quite literally numbered.
This book is such a wonderful idea, and it is such a clever and very fitting format turning it into a graphic novel. One of the reasons it came about was as a thank you for the people who were supporting her travels. In order to afford to go on the extensive journeys Meags Fitzgerald undertook in order to chronicle the photobooth saga she had to come up with creative ways to earn money. And I am so glad she did. So the book is a mix of history, memoir and even travelogue. Interspersed between chapters are drawings of the various styles of machines and where they are located. So this book is quite a compendium and a wonderful resource for photobooth enthusiasts. Fitzgerald is a true photobooth aficionado.
And to think not long ago I had the perfect opportunity to have my portrait taken in a vintage machine. My favorite movie theater recently screened Amélie as their members select film. If you've seen the film, you'll know the photobooth plays an important role in the movie. They brought in a photobooth for movie-goers to take their own pictures. It sat in the lobby for several weeks, but it was January and it was cold and I walk (and so had not been walking so much at the time) and I missed my opportunity sadly.
There is a thriving business, however, for rental of these machines (as you see). And if you want to find where some of the original machines live, there is an extensive website that is chock full of information on vintage photobooths. According to the website's locator there is a mere 'one' machine in Nebraska with a permanent location. It is in a local pub/concert venue, which means it might be interesting to try and go in and use the machine (and it is only steps away from my favorite movie theater), so maybe I'll find an opportunity to have a strip of four portraits taken sometime.