Photo Booths: Behind the Curtain


The first fully automated, coin-op photo booth appeared in New York City in 1925, predating Polaroid’s first instant film products by more than 2 decades, and paving the way for personal, photographer-free, economic portrait creation.

This first photo booth was so popular that within only 6 months over two hundred and eighty thousand people had their portraits taken inside!  The rest, as they say, is history.

Photo booths quickly took up a spot in pop culture and daily life.  In the early days, subjects would get dressed to the nines and stare nearly expressionlessly in formal poses for the photo booth.  When cameras were still an expensive commodity, the photo booth provided a quick and easy way for the average person to have a nice portrait of themselves.  It was common to snip out the best of the 4 provided shots to snail mail to a distant loved one.

But as the photo booth became more commonplace, using them also became less formal.  It wasn’t long before groups of three, even four intoxicated friends would cram into the tiny booths to celebrate a night out on the town.  No longer were the standard four photos used to cull a best shot but the strips would remain intact, telling a short, fun, almost cinematic story.

A working vintage photo booth in the Funland Arcade at Ocean City, Maryland

By the 1960’s, Andy Warhol turned photo booth images into an art form, taking both photos of himself in booths as well as directing models like Edie Sedgwick inside them.  Warhol was fascinated with the question of WHO the photographer/artist was if there was no one behind the actual camera.  Today, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh maintains an original, working booth in their basement.

Characters in the 2001 French film, Amelie explore the quirky relationship between the public-ness and privacy of photo booths.  Images of subjects on the photo booth prints even come to life.

Strips representing 5 different visits over the course of about 6 years to my family’s “local” photobooths

The photobooth reminds us that automated, photographer-less photography really isn’t the new thing that we often imagine it as today.  Yet unlike today’s sophisticated take-anywhere, automated cameras, the photo booth was a much more simple device, requiring some cooperation from its occupant/subject.  Therein these limitations, the fun  begins.

In the last 10 years, authentic photochemical photo booths have all but nearly disappeared, being replaced with digital units.  The digital photobooths offer the advantage of printing multiple copies of images.  However, with most public digital photobooths, the cameras are comically low resolution and print quality is horrendous.  The prints are ink-based, not chemical like the originals, and so are prone to damage.

Original photochemical booths produce unique prints with an almost 3d-like quality and rich contrast that can only be appreciated by viewing the original in hand.  The strips are spit out of the machine with a slight curl and are wet with the water used to rinse off the chemistry.  Once dry, they can be flattened, if they don’t do so naturally, and will be beautiful as new for at least a century.

The fixed lens in a booth requires the subject to sit precisely on the height-adjustable stool in order to be in focus and evenly lit.  One must see their face in the reflective glass covering the camera or risk being cropped out!  Sit forward too much and go out of focus!

4 Poses, 3 Minutes, 3 Bucks.  Well, sort of.  Still, not bad for $3!

Most photobooths used to take about 3 minutes after shooting to process their images.  But today, the few existing booths have extended developing times anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes.  This is a result of how much less frequently these machines are refreshed with new chemistry.

The fun, timeless photos are well worth the wait though!

Our growing family.  For our 2018 vacation, we spent over half an hour taking photos and waiting for the prints to process.

Oh, and if you’d like to see some amazing historic and modern photo booth images as well as images OF photobooths, check out the Flickr Photo Booth Group!

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to go support the original photo booths nearest you!

Follow, Favorite, Like, Add, Contact Johnny Martyr 


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