The Beauty of Vintage Photobooths
|From an original photobooth manual|
In an era of instant gratification and Instagram, there remains one photographic tool that holds on to its nostalgic charm—the vintage photobooth. The photobooth—that box with a stool and curtain that we have all been in at one point or another—is as ubiquitous as photography itself. Both have firmly lodged themselves in our collective memory, as recognizable as white bread or football. But while one has managed to adapt itself to the charge of progress, the other has held fast to its original intent and in turn become a casualty of evolution. Both hold important places in the history of art and popular culture. And while one, photography, has melded and morphed into a form that fits the times, the photobooth is quickly being forgotten to the past. Those of us who bother with these machines today come at it from varying angles. Some of us see it as an important art medium, one that should have its own place in the history books. Others are technicians and mechanics who have a love for the machines the same way some people fawn over classic Corvettes. Some are purely in it for the kitsch, seeing the machines as a quirky sideshow act. Regardless, most of us share a little bit of all these things. And to many outsiders we look like happy fools following a rusting, obsolete metal box full of photo chemicals into obscurity. This, we can be certain, we definitely are.
|A vintage photobooth picture, c. 1950s|
The booth has three main components: electronic, mechanical, and photographic. The electronics control the firing signals that tell the mechanical components to start, which then activates a series of movements through gears and switches that takes four pictures on a strip of paper and carries it through 14 tubs of chemicals. Because of the repetitive action of the developing process, the photobooths have earned the nickname “dip-and-dunk” machines. It truly is a marvel of turn-of-the-century inventiveness. An entire photography studio, complete with strobe lights and developing darkroom, is crammed into a metal box and electrified. I remember the Frankenstein feeling I had after completing an overhaul on a decrepit photobooth. After many hours of trial and error, and endless tweaking and retro-fitting, you hit the switch and four minutes later a little strip of paper spits out with your smiling face on it. It’s alive!!
|L: The delivery unit inside a booth, R: The camera inside a booth|
(For more photos from inside of a photo booth, click here)
|Tanks inside a photobooth|
|Conceptualization in the photobooth|
|Fun in the photobooth|
For a more in-depth look at the history of photobooths, I recommend checking out Nakki Goranin’s great book, American Photobooth.
Contributor Bio: Russ Goeken is a Savannah-based photographer and collector who manages a handful of cranky dip-and-dunk machines for location and rental use.
Obscura Photoworks (you can rent a booth here)
Russ Goeken Photography