The History of the Photo Booth
Women have stripped off in them, Fred Astaire has danced in one, Andy Warhol turned them into a business. Näkki Goranin, who has spent 10 years collecting these pictures, tells the remarkable story of the photobooth and its camera-mad inventor.
How did all of these orphaned photographs come into my life? For 25 years, I have been collecting all types of historical photos, but for the past decade or so I have focused on discovering photobooth pictures. These tiny time fragments can be found in garage sales and auctions and, increasingly, on the internet. Traded, packed in old scrapbooks, outliving the smiling faces, they have finally found a home in my book. Putting thousands of miles on my car, I have tried to track down the last people who worked on the old booths, listened to fascinating stories in dozens of coffee shops, and saved historical photographs from skips. But like the forgotten images they are, it has been impossible to track down the original owners or their families.
Like all 21st-century explorers, my first step was the computer. At that time all I was able to find out was that a Siberian immigrant named Anatol Josepho had invented the photobooth machine. Then I moved on to the library to spend hours, days and weeks going through newspapers, trying to find any acknowledgment of his life. I tracked down an obituary and found Josepho had died in southern California in 1980. Through the notice, and after many phone calls, I was able to locate people who had known and loved him. And here begins the real story.
In 1894, Omsk, Siberia, was the gateway to the cold interior of a beautiful but brutal land. This was the year the first railroad connected Omsk to Moscow and China. Far from Moscow, Omsk was a city of exiles, intellectuals, politically minded citizens, and a significant number of Jews who had been less than graciously encouraged to move to Siberia.
In the struggling industrial town, Anatol Josephewitz (later Josepho) was born to a prosperous jeweller and his wife. At age three, Anatol lost his mother and developed a close bond with his father. Even in the wilds of Siberia, at eight or nine little Anatol started to dream of travelling around the world, especially to America to see the ‘Wild West’. He also had a great interest in the Brownie box cameras that were making photography accessible to the growing middle class. As a child, after seeing his first camera, he became intrigued and told his father he wanted to learn all he could about photography, and he was subsequently enrolled in a local technical institute. Anatol was impatient, however, and at the age of 15 (about 1909), he told his father it was time for him to explore the world. His father, according to a popular magazine published in 1926, told Anatol, ‘Life itself, my son, is the supreme teacher. Go. Travel. Work. Study. Listen… Come back when you will. I’ll still be waiting for you. And I want to be proud of you when you come back. Remember that, my boy, won’t you?’
His father gave him money to go to Berlin. Taking a second-class ticketed train, Anatol would have been crowded in with all the other Russians bound for Bremen, Germany, to catch ships heading for North and South America to begin new lives. Berlin, meanwhile, was one of the world’s most sophisticated cities: the Aviation Exposition was demonstrating the Wright brothers’ Flyer; one of the largest shopping malls in Europe had just opened; art, music and photography were part of the daily life of Berliners. As Anatol walked through the town, the window of a photography studio demanded his attention. Lined up in the window were beautiful photographic portraits, hand-tinted. Fascinated, he walked into the studio and talked the owner into hiring him and training him as a photographer.
Here is where Anatol’s life began to change. As he learned how to use a portrait camera and glass negatives, as well as the arts of developing and printing, he evolved the idea of creating a faster, more efficient, and less costly way of creating images that would make photographs available to the average working man.
All the America-bound customers coming into the studio to have their portraits taken proved too much of a temptation to Anatol and, in 1912, the 18-year-old joined the parade of immigrants on a ship bound for New York. Feeling overwhelmed, not able to find a job, and without any support, Anatol returned to Europe, to the romantic and thriving Budapest.
With great optimism, Josepho opened his own photo studio there. At 19, he was his own man, experimenting with photography and starting to draw designs for an automated photo machine. Using his technical background from the Russian school, he wanted to create a machine that would employ a self-operated interior mechanical device that would be initiated by a coin. He worked on this plan with great devotion and came up with a primitive prototype.
As a Russian, Josepho was put under strict military surveillance during the First World War; the young photographer had few patrons and much free time. He started thinking about creating a photographic paper that would produce a beautifully toned positive image and not require a film negative. He would spend years figuring out how to use specific chemicals to develop this paper, and how to design a delivery process for his new machine.
In 1920 Anatol returned home to his father. But so much had changed. The Red Army had invaded Omsk in 1919 and life had become much more complicated. Anatol left again, this time taking the train east. Travelling through Mongolia and China, he ended up in Shanghai in 1921.
Shanghai at this time was known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Drawn into the artistic hub, the 27-year-old Anatol, who had changed his last name from the Russian spelling of Josephewitz, established his own Josepho Studio. A popular photographer, he journeyed through parts of China shooting images, but he was constantly thinking about and working on the design of what was to become the Photomaton. In Shanghai, a blueprint was roughly drawn out and the notations for the chemical process carefully organised.
Anatol was now about 30. His studio was a financial success. But it was not enough. The idea of his automatic photographic machine drove him on. As he wrote later:
While I was in China, in 1921, I drew rough plans for the invention. I decided to come to America and hunt for backers. I landed at Seattle. It struck me that I ought to go to Hollywood and get motion picture experience. I went there, got the experience I needed, and then came east. I had relatives in New York City. With their aid, and that of friends, I raised what I needed to produce the first model. For that purpose, I raised $11,000. Incidentally, I may say that those who loaned me the money for an interest in the invention have been well repaid for taking a chance.
To understand how much money $11,000 was then, the average cost of a reasonably sized house in 1925 was $2,000. In a short time Josepho, the newcomer, was able to talk people into loaning him the money, find the appropriate machinists and engineers to help him build his Photomaton machine, and be sought out by the leading industrialists in America.
This slight, handsome, vivacious inventor constantly won people over with his enthusiasm and brilliance. By September 1925 he had opened up his Photomaton Studio on Broadway, between 51st and 52nd streets. Crowds, as many as 7,500 people a day, would line up to have their photos taken for 25 cents for a strip of eight: the place came to be known as ‘Broadway’s greatest quarter-snatcher.’ The New York governor and a senator were among those waiting for the fun of the automatic photo strip. A white-gloved attendant would guide people to the booth and, once inside, direct them to ‘look to the right, look to the left, look at the camera’.
Anatol had achieved the American Dream. It was 1926 and he was romancing a beautiful silent film actress named Ganna when he was contacted by Henry Morganthau, the former American ambassador to Turkey and a founder of the American Red Cross. Morganthau put together a board of directors with authority to make an offer to Josepho to buy both his photo machines and the Photomaton patent: $1m for the American rights.
On 28 March, 1927, on the front page of the New York Times, the headline read: ‘Slot Photo Device Brings $1,000,000 to Young Inventor’. Morganthau Sr was quoted as saying: ‘I believe that through Mr Josepho’s invention, we can make personal photography easily and cheaply available to the masses of this country. We propose to do in the photographic field what Woolworth’s has accomplished in novelties and merchandise, Ford in automobiles and the chain store in supplying the necessities and luxuries of life over widespread areas.’
Anatol accepted the million dollars, and immediately gave part of the money away to the needy of New York City. The press reacted negatively. Because of the Russian Revolution and his Siberian origins, the fact that he planned to give away much of his money was seen as evidence that he was a socialist. Journalists could not imagine anyone giving away this kind of money without a political agenda.
The next year, Josepho sold the European rights for the Photomaton to an English/French consortium and the Photomaton started a journey that took the bulky and heavy booth to every country on earth.
Everyone loved sitting in the booth, making faces, kissing, squeezing in friends. As early as the mid-Fifties, Auto-Photo had an unexpected problem. Complaints started coming in, from Woolworth’s and other stores, that people, particularly women, were stripping off their clothes for the private camera. Couples started being a little more adventurous behind the curtain. As a result, many of the Woolworth’s stores removed their curtains to discourage naughty encounters.
In Hollywood, photobooths were demanding attention. In the 1953 film The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Astaire performs a number where he dances into a Photomatic, sits for a photo, the flash goes off in time to the music, and he dances out. In 1957, Esquire magazine lugged one of Mutascope’s art deco booths into Richard Avedon’s New York studio. According to the the article, Avedon ‘has long asserted that true photographic talent cannot be restrained by a camera’s technical limitations’. The Esquire editors picked celebrities and challenged Avedon to produce photographs. The resulting photomatic essay is stunning, including images of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Truman Capote and Ethel Merman.
Andy Warhol was the first art promoter of the photobooth. Starting in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Warhol understood the photobooth as a cheap and effective camera, producing photographs that cut to the bone an image perfectly suited for graphic design. When Warhol looked at the black-and-white photostrip, he saw it fully expanded. Like a gardener seeing the flower as he looks at the seed, Warhol envisioned the colour and sense of movement the artist could achieve by combining a variety of poses from the booth. He also used just one frame reinterpreted in different colours and superimposed line drawings.
Warhol sent his wealthy subjects to an arcade at Broadway and 47th Street in Manhattan. Among the flashing Mutoscope games and smells of popcorn and urine, Warhol would have his sitters go from photobooth to photobooth until he found one he liked (the booths in the arcade would have been the old Auto-Photo Models 11 and 14). The reason for trying different machines was that the depth of the black-and-white tones on the print would have been dependent on how fresh the chemicals in each machine were. The more a photobooth was used, the more exhausted the chemicals would be. If the chemicals were going bad, the photobooth pictures would become greyer and seemingly out of focus.
In 1963, Warhol challenged the commercial portrait world with his inclusion of photobooth photos of models in Harper’s Bazaar. In 1964, Warhol started using Times Square photobooths in a series of self-portraits and paid commissions. The following year, Time magazine hired Warhol to produce a cover on American teenagers; he used the sons and daughters of the executives of Time as photobooth subjects.
Warhol, like everyone else, kept hundreds of photo strips of his friends and all the wannabes who walked into his life. For a short time at the Factory he had his own Auto-Photo booth. He was not there much of the time, so the booth was his presence, taking visitors’ pictures. Later, some of these photos were silkscreened. With assistants following Warhol’s directions, hundreds of these silkscreens were produced, with Warhol adding his final touches – and cashing the cheques.
Auto-Photo, in the late 1950s, also tried to market the Model 11A, designed for police and prison mug shots. This model was stripped of any decoration or curtain, and a numbered strip could be held or inserted on the photo. The company also tried to market a photobooth with wheels that could be rolled out to riots and other civil disturbances, so that people could be photographed and tagged on the spot. The idea of an 800lb photobooth being wheeled from ballpark to bar never seemed to take off, though, and civil liberty lawyers lost a profitable avenue. However, photobooths are still used in some prisons for mugshots and, in their public areas, for prisoners to take photos with visiting families.
In the 1990s, Photo-Me promoted digital colour photobooths using a computer and printout paper. But people continued to crowd the old black-and-white chemical booths.There really is nothing comparable to the old black-and-white photobooth, the small private photo studio with the hidden darkroom. Even today, some 80-plus years since the first Photomaton, the phone calls continue to come into the main Texas office. The most frequent requests are from customers desperate to retrieve what they believe are negatives of photos taken the night before. Bambi Torres, Photo-Me’s encylopedia of mechanical facts, has constantly to reassure people there are no negatives.
Story by: Näkki Goranin