A picture and a thousand words
They kissed, and kissed again. How in the public-private space of the automated photo booth we let our guard down, and got a truer picture of ourselves
March 30, 2008 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star
If a picture is equivalent to 1,000 words, then dividing this strip of four photobooth images into 250 words apiece is too tempting to resist. Starting at the top, we see a couple looking at each other, instead of the camera lens. This polyptych is taken from historical photo collector Näkki Goranin's new book, American Photobooth, and like the other little squares of humanity that comprise her collection, this couple is anonymous, the photo undated.
More is known, however, about the history of the machine that took this couple's picture. The first photobooth, known as the Photomaton, cost 25 cents to use when it debuted in September 1925 in Manhattan (at 1659 Broadway, to be precise). Invented by Anatol Josepho, a charismatic photographer from Siberia, it produced eight images (in eight minutes) instead of the four seen here.
Less than two years later, in March of 1927 at the age of 33, Josepho received a million dollars for the North American patent rights to his Photomaton from a group of businessmen led by American Red Cross co-founder Henry Morgenthau. Since Josepho's Broadway location drew crowds of up to 7,500 per day, the payout was a savvy one, and soon the Photomaton spread across America. As the December 1927 issue of Photo Era magazine reported, "You need no longer be dull in Boston if you have twenty-five cents 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 pictures made."
Not only did the Photomaton eliminate the stilted tableau of formal portrait sitting, its flimsy curtain and corresponding privacy encouraged adventures of a romantic nature. Which helps explain the intimate, passionate kiss seen in the second square. Given the couple's boldness, it is likely that this image was taken after 1934, the year the attendant-free Photomatic first appeared, a gorgeous, art deco-style booth that was sleeker than the original Photomaton.
Previous to the Photomatic, white-gloved assistants were required for maintenance and crowd control. As Photo Era's reporter described it, "From twelve to one is the busiest time for the Photomaton. Then the attendants at the three booths become automatons, herding the prospects in one line with one hand, guiding the immediate sitter with another, while muttering directions to both."
As these attendants disappeared, so too did certain inhibitions and restraint. Without a human photographer or attendant as witness, the mechanized procedure of the coin-in-the-slot photobooth allowed people to challenge (or at least tweak) the conventions of traditional portraiture.
"Just picture yourself!" was the Photomaton's slogan and, safe in the dark, private displays of affection could be preserved for posterity.
Of course, the freedom of the booth was fragile, since these machines were almost always located in public settings such as department stores or train stations. At the same time, this probably added a frisson of danger and excitement.
The couple remains lip-locked in panel three. As we wait for them to run out of air or film, it might be a good time to mention a more recent incarnation of the photobooth. In February of this year, condom company LifeStyles introduced the Makeout Booth, a promotional photobooth that toured a dozen Manhattan hotspots and dispensed both black-and-white photographs and condoms.
The intent of the promotion was only to foreshadow the evening's possibilities, rather than promote immediate incitation. As LifeStyles spokeswoman Carol Carrozza told New York's Daily News in January of this year, "We don't mind a little snuggling and that kind of thing, but there won't be too much more going on right there."
LifesStyles is hardly the first to realize the booth's erotic potential. As Goranin writes in American Photobooth, during the mid-1950s, the Auto-Photo Company started receiving complaints that "people, especially women, were stripping off their clothes for the private photobooth camera." Many Woolworths stores soon removed the booth curtains to ensure that patrons kept the proceedings G-Rated.
Lest you think Goranin is peddling smut, numerous images in American Photobooth feature lone sitters, haunting the mechanical eye with their solitary gaze. As David Haberstich, an associate curator at the National Museum of American History, notes in the foreword, "Many images in this book portray the loneliness of solitary figures, testimonies to the human condition, preserving sad moments, in fleeting or permanent features. Some of the grimmest are the most memorable, the most strangely beautiful."
The final image. The couple faces the camera. Giddy. Triumphant.
Perhaps the couple planned their poses beforehand, in the process creating a flip-book movie with only four frames. Boy meets girl, they kiss, they kiss again, and acknowledge the camera. The end. Roll credits.
The photobooth is as much about ritual and process as result, which helps explain why these machines have survived into the 21st century, where they remain surprisingly popular. (For a North American booth locator, visit photobooth.net.) The photobooth is iconic if no longer ubiquitous, immortalized in films such as Amélie and books such as Beautiful Losers, in which Leonard Cohen describes the Main Shooting and Game Alley on Montreal's St. Lawrence Blvd.: "The Photomat was broken; it accepted quarters but returned neither flashes nor pictures."
Although the photobooth endures, the images it produces are often considered temporary, a disposable record of passing whims, fashions, moods or paramours. While it is advertised as a device that converts coins into small, portable, low-resolution memories, Goranin wants us to think of it instead as an art machine, deserving of its own coffee-table book.
American Photobooth preserves another example of vernacular art, suggesting that informal imagery can often tell us more than the work of professional photographers. Through these self-portraits, we picture ourselves – perhaps our true selves – four at a time.
(Picture courtesy of AMERICAN PHOTOBOOTH)