Photo booth photos of a woman in her early 20s, Phoenix, Arizona, 1930s. Freeparking / CC BY 2.0

One last Saturday morning In New York, the analog photo booth at the Ace Hotel on 29th Street was out of order. In the booth, which costs $ 5 plus tax for a strip of four black and white photos (cards accepted), a piece of paper hung crooked on the mirror, right on the sign that said “EYE LEVEL”. “Sorry, I’m broken …” it read. “I’ll be better soon. XO, Ace. “Hardly a dozen of these film-based photo booths are still in town, a fact that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s.

In September 1925, the crowds gathered around the block for the first Photomaton studio, 30 blocks north of the current location of the Ace Hotel on 51st Street and Broadway. Each motif paid 25 cents, was bathed in flashes of light and waited eight minutes for a strip with eight photos. Eighteen months later, the New York Times reported, “The young inventor of the photomaton is about to celebrate his first million.” With today’s money that would be nearly $ 14 million.

Anatol Josepho, the inventor of the “Photomaton” photo booth, which debuted in September 1925 on Broadway 1659 in New York City. Library of Congress / LC-DIG-ggbain-25079

The inventor Anatol Josepho was born in 1894 and came from nowhere. Josepho, née Josephowitz, grew up in Siberia as an exiled Jew. When he was 15, he set out to explore the world. He started in Berlin, where he bought a brownie camera and learned to take pictures. He later took it to Budapest, Shanghai and finally New York. In Harlem in 1925, he raised the $ 11,000 it took to build a prototype for the first curtained photo booth – the cost of nearly six decently sized homes at the time. Josepho was charming and obsessed with the project, writes photographer Näkki Goranin. Though I’m a newcomer to town[he] was able to persuade people to lend him the money, find the appropriate machinists and engineers to help build his Photomaton machine, and be sought out by leading industrialists in America. “

Josepho stood on the shoulders of decades of hobbyists flirting with this technology since the 1880s when an craze for vending machines of all kinds, including selters, chocolate, and postcards conquered Europe and America. At the same time, photo technology developed at a gallop. Some early stands offered prints for a penny, while others offered unreliable color types with almost unrecognizable motifs. In the 1920s, the technology was refined more and more – until Josepho patented the stand in 1925, which set the standard for the next 90 years.

Two friends pose for a picture in a photo booth, date unknown.Two friends pose for a picture in a photo booth, date unknown. Simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0

It wasn’t long before the photo booth was everywhere: shopping malls, bars, airports, post offices, Fred Astaire films. In the US, they were often owned by PhotoMe, says Tim Garrett, an artist who runs the Photobooth.Net website with friend and colleague Brian Meacham. “It wasn’t a bunch of hipsters, it was a bunch of old salespeople,” he says. He takes on an accent. “Like – ‘Train stations are good’, ‘Bus stops are good’.” Couples enjoyed illegal kisses inside (sometimes the curtains were removed), friends posed together, and artists incorporated them into their oeuvre. It was an easy process. You went in, sat on the adjustable stool, straightened your face, and attacked four lightning bolts and shutter clicks. Then came the endless, endless wait of about three or four minutes. Beneath the gleaming exterior whizzed and whirred an angrily complex device – springs and arms and vortices, what photo booth enthusiasts refer to as tubs of “chemistry,” strips of specially treated paper. Finally, your photos were spat out of the slit on the side while still wet. If you lost her or hated her, what a shame. No negatives, no preview, no overlaps. But you got four.

Even the most recent analog stands you see today were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Garrett. “The photo booth companies stopped manufacturing from scratch. They would pull the old machines, re-skin them, and then take them out again as new machines if there was still the same chemistry inside. “The later color machines didn’t require different mechanisms or booths – just different chemicals (both powder and liquid). And it wasn’t difficult to update them with new signage, lights, or innovations like card readers. “At some point the booths reached a critical mass, and then they had no reason to make them.”

Digital photo booths like this one in Germany have replaced their analogue ancestors. Digital photo booths like this one in Germany have replaced their analogue ancestors. Public domain

But two technological developments meant fate for the old chemical booths. First, the advent of Polaroid photography, which made the instant gratification of photos easier and more flexible. Next came lightweight digital color photo booths in the 1990s. These were cheaper, faster, easier to move, and required much less maintenance. Slowly, then quickly, the chemistry booths were withdrawn from circulation. Garrett and Meacham started running their user-generated website in 2005, calling for movie and photo booth nuts around the world to get the devices displayed wherever they can be found. “When Brian and I started tracking things down, it was just the end of what we call centralized photo booth operations,” says Garrett. PhotoMe owned virtually every booth in the country and hired locals to service them and collect the money from their coffers. They eventually moved the chemistry booths and began switching to fully digital models. “Like photo kiosks at the beginning of the digital camera,” says Garrett, “where you can print your photos.” In many cases, they haven’t bothered to replace them at all.

Today is the chemical photo booth seems to be analogous to the giant panda: strong, black and white, rarely seen in the wild.

Few people know how to properly care for them, and moving from place to place is a major operation where a slight jerk can damage them in a multitude of ways. And chemistry and paper are specific, expensive, and rare. Ninety percent of the population doesn’t care or notice the difference between analog and digital booths, Garrett says. But for those who do, “Digital just doesn’t capture it.”

Enthusiasts can buy an old booth, renovate it, and then rent it out for weddings or bars. Garrett estimates that fewer than 10 people in the United States know enough about them to do a full top-down remodel, though there are many more who know enough to at least wait for them. The ropes could be shown relatively easily even more, he thinks. Even so, it’s not a guaranteed moneymaker. In addition to regular maintenance and refilling with chemicals and paper, the old, tricky machines often head south. For a while he himself transported an old stand for events around the country. “If it’s a wedding, it’s kind of a make-or-break deal. It’s hard to justify. It’s just a riskier operation than throwing away a digital booth. “

The interior of the Ace Hotel photo booth, 2017.The interior of the Ace Hotel photo booth, 2017. Natasha Frost / Atlas Obscura

Even so, the people and the classes they love and tend to persist. Each of the nine Ace Hotel locations across the country has its own booth in the lobby. In New York, you’ll find them in trendy pubs like Otto’s Shrunken Head, Bushwick Country Club, and Union Pool. The $ 5 strips of pictures are often re-photographed on a phone and introduced to the world. In Europe, and especially in Berlin, analog stands are flourishing all over the city.

“If there aren’t people actively destroying them, there will be analog photo booths in the years to come,” says Garrett. “There are enough of them out there that I don’t think are really threatened in private hands.” Like used cars, some are in better shape than others, though tender, loving care should help them last for years, provided they are met with enough interest. But the machinery is only part of the puzzle. They also rely on chemistry, paper, and manpower.

An early patent for the predecessor of Josepho's photo booth.An early patent for the predecessor of Josepho’s photo booth. Google patents

Garrett and Meacham have gone through chemical company after chemical company. The chemicals required are known and do not require any technical know-how – just the will to actually manufacture them. Most recently, they used a supplier in Missouri that was sold out to a larger company. “There was just one guy in a ten-sided building in the Ozark Hills who mixed that chemistry and shipped it around the world,” says Garrett. The margins are not huge, but there is reason to believe that these substances will be available for some time. Paper, on the other hand, is harder. The Russian company Slavich is the world’s only manufacturer of analog photo booth paper, a subsidiary business in addition to lead glass for X-ray systems and other special items. Even their main trade was increasingly restricted by the rise of digital imaging. If they were to fold the very specific paper or stop producing it, photo booths all over the world would only have their leftovers – and then finally.

Finally, there is the issue of manpower. That Saturday morning in New York, a bearded technician – who refused to reveal his name – in a black T-shirt with a large doctor’s bag came in to fix the Ace Hotel’s photo booth. This is a side gig for him, he says. He didn’t start trading as a photo booth enthusiast, but rather in the 1990s while working in an arcade where there was one. As analog photo booths move “in the wild” into the realm of distant memory, people who have acquired the skills in the course of a normal job will necessarily move on to other things. At this point in time, the maintenance of these decade-old, thousand-pound stalls will be reserved exclusively for enthusiasts, the dedicated nostalgics. All of this just to capture the feeling of damp photo paper and inexplicable photo quality that the digital booths will never reproduce.

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