Saturday, February 9, 2008

American Photobooth

When I was in school, one of my friends discovered a photobooth machine in the Greyhound Station in downtown Ann Arbor. The machine would make one image, which came out in a white cardboard mat, with a shiny (mirrored - as far as those things go) backside. At certain points I know that several of us would take the relatively long walk off of campus, several times, bringing small suitcases with changes of clothes, for hours long sessions with the machine. Sadly, as I know there were many more, only one of those images is still with me.

Among the many forms of vernacular photographies, the photobooth is much more clearly in lineage to the entrepreneurialism and hucksterism of the 19th century than more pervasive forms such as the amateur snapshot engendered by corporate giants such as Eastman Kodak. The gadgetry of the photobooth is always prominent, & it's formats are limited. Unlike the snapshot which although industrial in form, also becomes a kaleidescope of various uses - it has no specific scripts - the photobooth is an all too definite frame or proscenium in which one enters. The camera & the machinery always dominate the image, & it's always cheap. The photographic process is never sublimated the way it can be in snapshots, in which the camera becomes opaque & indistinguishable from the the image. One always knows what it is, & that it came most distinctly, from a machine.

American Photoboothby Nakki Goranin is a wonderfully detailed history of the photobooth, its inventors,the various companies which marketed the machines, technological changes, & its various forms: 1-image, 4-strip, 5-strip, black-&-white, color, chemical-based, digital, etc. The photobooth is of the world of the penny arcades & amusement parks. The book includes fascinating information about the production of the machines, their distribution, & the vagaries of time & the market. Included also are examples of Goranin's large collection of photobooth images, as well as her own work with the medium. Initially I found the inclusion of Goranin's own work in the book disruptive to my sense of what "history" should be - my idea being to keeping it clinical & in the past tense, but ultimately I find it part of the many dialogues about the photobooth she invokes. No examples of Andy Warhol's photobooth images are included directly (which I am guessing may be a copyright issue), although there is a remarkable TIME magazine cover from January 29, 1965, which was designed by Warhol of "Today's Teenagers."

Warhol's photobooth images, while not ostensibly "by" Warhol, but made under his direction, or for his use, were used for early silkscreen portraits, such as the multiple image portrait of Ethel Scull, but also are of interest by themselves, as portraits of his factory cohorts, clients, & friends (Edie Sedgwick, Holly Solomon, Edward Villela, & so on). In Warhol's usage, the photobooth is a kind of Times Square readymade - Duchampian & Pop - & it also functions as a studio. While not mentioned in the book, the Surrealists used photobooths & certainly photobooth imagery, with their consistent monotony of framing, their anonymity, informed pieces such as Man Ray's "Surrealist Chess Board." The photobooth is an automatic image.

I am a fan of Photoboothby Babbette Hines which exists only as a collection of images & as such has a more discreet aesthetic presence; it becomes more museum-like. Goranin's informal history, with diagrams, factory views, advertisements & sales lore, keeps a bit of the sawdust from the fairgrounds still intact for the photobooth experience.

The photobooth is a very direct confrontation between a consumer & a machine. As a camera it is always bigger than a breadbox, always obvious. It is relentless spasms of posing, posturing, joking - it is both mocked & obeyed - as we all conform to being a picture.

1 comment:

jhf said...

I own a 1962 b/w photobooth in Ann Arbor. It's in Bab's bar downtown. Come use it.