Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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
I first came to the world of vintage photobooths like most things in life—completely unexpectedly and without a clue as to what I was getting in to.  The whole idea of the photobooth first piqued my interest in a purely photographic way.  The idea of a complete photography darkroom shoved into a metal box the size of a broom closet and operated by a machine with arms and wheels and gears was too much to resist.  Only fellow photographers, with the exception of maybe classic car gear heads, can appreciate my excitement when I was first shown the inside of a vintage photobooth.  When I found out the components of the booth had names such as the Spider Arm, Transmission Assembly, and the AP-10 Unit, that was it.  I was sold.  The fact that the photobooth has been around in one version or another for almost 100 years gave me a feeling of being tied to a history that was rich in context and full of dust and cobwebs.  This booth still used the same basic technology that was implemented in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  In a way, it was like stumbling on an old Egyptian tomb.


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
The most common places to find these old photobooths now are in bars and restaurants.  Long gone are the days when every train station and department store had a photo-chemical, dip-and-dunk booth.  Those have all since been replaced by cheaper and easier to maintain digital booths, or removed entirely.  Today, a handful of businesses around the world are reinstating the photobooths in popular nightspots, places where the nostalgia and amusement factor can be appreciated.  Other photobooths are being given second lives by collectors and enthusiasts who have no business intent at all.  They are simply buying and using the machines either for the historical or artistic merits.  Either way, it is a reality that there are fewer than 300 operational dip-and-dunk photobooths lefts in the world.  The maintenance and upkeep required, not to mention the scarcity of parts and supplies, have made operating these machines a labor of love.  The rest have gone digital or gone native—scrapped into a pile of metal, as it were.

Conceptualization in the photobooth
It’s hard to pin down the exact allure of the photobooth.  Maybe it is the romanticism of the silky black and white images.  Or maybe it’s the eroticism of climbing into a tiny booth with another human being and pulling that red curtain closed.  It could be the paradox that the booth is at once so intimate while at the same time being so sterile and homogenous that people find appealing.  After all it was designed to take a picture the same exact way every single time.  Maybe it’s this clean slate that gives the subject a feeling of spontaneity, as if they can create a whole world all their own.  Any amount of conceptualization can occur inside that tiny space and any artist can explore those possibilities.  Maybe it’s the lack of a (human) photographer that’s enough for otherwise prudent subjects to let loose and show some true colors.  Or it might be because it’s just plain fun.

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.  

Websites: 
Retro Photobooths 
Obscura Photoworks (you can rent a booth here)
Russ Goeken Photography 


5 comments:

  1. I love this post. The photo booths used to be so much fun to use. It is cool the see the interior and get a glimpse of the process. Their evoluation is amazing

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  2. Still working on building my own at home for family get together

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  3. The digital photobooths are just not the same. I would love to come across a vintage booth to restore. My local hotel has one in the dining room. Oh nostalgia!

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  4. I just love vintage photobooths, the digital ones are just not the same. I wish I could find one to restore. My favourite watering hole has one in the dining room. Oh, the nostalgia!

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  5. It's amazing how many people agree with you here. Nice writing style.Thanks for sharing.

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