The Demise of the Photo Booth

Shawnee Barton

In 2006, a documentarian travelled across the country to capture the last slide projector rolling off a Rochester, NY assembly line.  More recently, an online community formed and revolted when Polaroid announced they would no longer produce their iconic instant cameras or sheet film.  The demise of these technologies was depressing (and heartbreaking for some photographers I know). Their downfalls strummed cultural heartstrings.  They made us nostalgic for simpler times and encouraged the aesthetic appreciation of analog media.   It’s sad that slide projectors and the Polaroid camera are gone, but both received adequate and comforting eulogies and celebration on their way out of production.  Unfortunately, the fantastic vintage photo booths that have documented decades of silly faces, loving kisses, and drunken evenings are dying a slow and painful death and nobody seems to notice or care.

Last year, I moved to San Diego from Chicago.  Any artist will tell you that building a network of resources to make art in a new city is frustrating and difficult.   The process is as painful as finding a cheap but decent hairstylist or a gynecologist that doesn’t make your skin crawl.  Recently, I needed to find an old-school, chemical photo booth for an art project.  I didn’t expect the hunt to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be impossible either.  Boy, was I wrong.  Searching for a photo booth turned into a Pee-Wee Herman style big adventure. I visited no fewer than 15 bars, bowling alleys, museums, amusement parks, and zoos before finally admitting to myself that I was looking for something that no longer existed.  The search was especially maddening since I knew exactly where I could find a booth if I was still in Chicago (Diversey Bowl! Rainbo Club! Arrgh!).

Even the two booths at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park had been replaced with digital stalls.  I asked a museum employee what happened to the two locally-famous old booths, and he said, “Changing the chemistry was such a hassle.  They’re being stored in the basement now.”   The astonishing irony of his statement made me realize that chemical booths in this country are doomed.  If maintaining a booth is too much work for a photography museum, there is no hope for the booths in the Kmarts and arcades across the country that are cared for by under-paid workers with no skin in the photography-preservation game.

Feeling increasingly hostile towards my new city, I decided to move my search north to L.A.  I mapped out a route using clues from photobooth.net, a website that lovingly attempts to map the locations of photo booths around the world.  The first five spots I visited had booths that had either been decommissioned or replaced with digital.

Even the booth in a vintage clothing shop in Silver Lake that was working as little as a year ago had been demoted to dressing room and clothing rack, which again made me feel hopeless:  If Silver Lake hipsters can’t provide enough business to keep a vintage booth in business, who will?

This is all very sad.  Photo booths are disappearing for the same reason slide projectors and Polaroid cameras bit the dust—Digital Photographic Technology.  I shoot with a digital SLR, and I am ambivalent about the tired digital vs. analog camera debate (there’s a time and place for both, imo).  However, when it comes to the digital vs. chemical photo booth argument, I might as well nominate myself to be captain of Team Chemical.  I think chemical photo booths are better in every way.

I am sure a lot of people like being able to fix their hair on the monitor and reshoot multiple times before finally printing the “perfect” image in a digital booth, but I prefer the magical spontaneity of the old booths. Never knowing exactly when the shutter will fire ensures that the captured images are surprising and authentic.  They may not always catch the most flattering versions of us, but they feel more truthful and energetic than the often stiff and rehearsed digital versions.  And the long, anticipation-building wait for the photo dryer is never anti-climatic.  Whatever comes out feels like treasure.

My friends thought my obsessive hunt for a photo booth was crazy.  One of them asked me, “Can’t you make a digital strip look old in Photoshop?” I probably could have, but fake Photoshop graininess just isn’t the same as the real gorgeous texture of old-school photo-strips.  Like thumbprints, every machine I have used has a signature look and feel depending on variables such as the texture of the machine’s paper and the age of the chemistry used for processing.   My favorite Chicago booth imprints a hexagon-shaped pattern on its images.  The one at the bar my friends and I frequented in grad school left a yellowish glow that reminds me of hazy drunkenness.

I am confident that there will always be a handful of chemical booths cared for by collectors or maintained in vintage-themed bars in our country’s biggest cities.   But after my depressing hunt, I am certain that the majority of chemical booths are sadly destined for extinction.  And it looks like they won’t have a celebrated death with a worldwide press release or a good-bye party like the slide projector and Polaroid camera.  Instead, the booths will slowly and unceremoniously march one by one into landfills across the county.  And we will be stuck with those gross digital booths that cost three times as much and spit out overly posed and pixilated images on crappy paper.

So, here’s to you old-school photo booths.  The world may not notice your plight, but I do.  I celebrate your spontaneity, your kitschy curtain backdrops, and your gorgeous grainy texture.   I will miss you and forever treasure the memories you have given me.

This was posted by Shawnee Barton, an artist who keeps a blog on blogs belonging to other people. If you have a little nook of cyberspace and are open to welcoming a guest poster, please email her at shawneebarton@gmail.com.  She will be grateful. To read past posts and to see where she is headed next, check out shawneebarton.com.