The Old Photomaton: Portraits for the Poor, Rich and Celebrities

The Old Photomaton: Portraits for the Poor, Rich and Celebrities

In 1926, a Jewish inventor from Siberia named Anatol Josepho opened a photo-booth concession, the first Photomaton in the world. Mr. Josepho kept the Photomaton “studio,” as he called it, open 24 hours. In April 1927, Time magazine reported that 280,000 customers had entered his booths in the first six months. It was such an instant hit that the photo booth spread from that spot in Times Square to arcades, amusement parks, state fairs, bus depots and five-and-dimes around the country. Across eight decades it has recorded countless youthful frolics, loving kisses and inebriated indiscretions. Its popularity survived the Depression, the vanishing of the old arcades and five-and-dimes and the proliferation of disposable, digital and cellphone cameras.

But today, the old-fashioned booths with their “dip ‘n’ dunk” chemical developing process and breathless wait for the damp strip of black-and-white images to slide out are disappearing into scrapheaps or into the homes of collectors (Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino among them), giving way to booths that are powered by digital, computerized equipment.

When it first opened, there were people standing all the way around the block. They spent 25 cents each to pose and then wait the eight minutes it took to process a strip of eight small photos. The old photo booths served as little portrait studios for the poor, the rich and even celebrities (in the old days). Among them was New York’s Gov. Al Smith, not the last political figure to step into a photo booth. In 1953, the newlyweds Jack and Jackie Kennedy took glowing self-portraits in one.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol often used the photo booths tin Times Square to take portraits, including his own, which he incorporated into his art. When Warhol went to a 42nd Street arcade, he always had to try several photo booths so he could find the one that had the right combination of chemicals to produce the best imagery. He was ofent there all day with rolls of quarters, and he was quite choosy about the poses. Warhol’s use of photo booths was consistent with his appreciation of mug shots, snapshots and news photos. Warhol was a great connoisseur of these vernacular types of photography. He wasn’t making judgments. He understood that it doesn’t have to be a work of art to be a great image.

Times Square: A History of the Early Photo Booths

The Comical Side: Photo Booth Pranks

The Avant-Garde: Photo-Silhouette Booth

The Old Photomaton: Portraits for the Poor, Rich and Famous

Read more about the old-timey photo booths here.

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