Issue #146  7/24/2008
Photo Book Review: American Photobooth

By Matt Damsker


By Nakii Goranin. 2008, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, London. 223 pgs.; approximately 200 photographs. ISBN Nos. 978-0-393-06556-5 (hardcover); 978-0-393-33076-2 (paperback). Information: http://www.wwnorton.com .

Among all that we take for granted in popular culture, the photobooth--that curtained locus of impulsive self-portraiture that once clacked and wheezed on just about every boardwalk and midway in America--has probably gotten less respect than it deserves. Before the darkroom-dismissing magic of the Polaroid Land Camera and long before the digital advent of pixel-swapping cell phones, there was the automated, 25-cent photobooth, spewing out the only instant snapshots to be had anywhere.

Photobooths became the epitome of photography's democratizing spirit, and it is hard to imagine anyone over the age of 40 who hasn't crammed into one with friends, family, would-be (and won't-be) lovers. A typically fast, giggly session soon yielded a strip of oddly poignant portraits, briefly redolent of developing fluid as it curled up in one's hand. (And how come there was never a Twilight Zone episode about a haunted photobooth that delivered scary images of the future?) For most of us, the photobooth was a kind of psychodramatic detour--C'mon, let's take our picture!--on the way to or from the places where our lives actually happened. Indeed, few artifacts so perfectly convey a sense of life on-the-fly as its hurried images of folks in their coats, hats, scarves, or military uniforms, of couples kissing shamelessly, and of cut-ups mugging in brief fits of photo-mockery. Indeed, how many millions of us have stuck out our tongues at that non-existent photobooth "photographer," emboldened by the fact that no one is actually there to pass judgment?

It's probably a good thing that Nakki Goranin's new book on the subject doesn't delve too far into such psychology, since there may not be much more to conclude other than that photobooths are inherently whimsical, private spaces that invite a certain loosening of inhibition, not unlike a stiff drink. Instead, Goranin's "American Photobooth" concentrates on the history of the innovation, and reproduces a wonderful collection of vintage photobooth portraiture that reminds us, as vintage snapshots tend to do, of how innocent we once were before the camera.

Apparently (and perhaps amazingly), this is the first such published account of the photobooth's origins and evolution, and as such it is overdue. (Editor's note: Weston Naef rightly points out that Babbette Hines, "Photobooth", Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, predates this book.) Goranin's loving narrative traces the invention of the "photomaton" to a Siberian immigrant named Anatol Josepho, who struggled devotedly with the idea, improving upon lesser automatic photo machines, until he crafted a durable process for producing a positive image directly on pretreated paper, mechanically moving it through different chambers of developing solution, water, bleach, fixer, toner, into a dryer and out of the machine. Eventually, Josepho opened his Photomaton Studio on Broadway, between 51st and 52nd streets, in 1925. For 25 cents, the machine delivered a strip of eight different photos, and it was the sort of New York novelty that had folks lining up in droves. Soon, a consortium of businessmen led by Henry Morganthau, the former American ambassador to Turkey and one of the founders of the American Red Cross, made Josepho a rich man, buying him out of his Photomaton patent for one million dollars. Josepho's labor of love soon made its way to Atlantic City, Coney Island and beyond: American Dream accomplished.

Goranin's history is detailed and neatly written, but it's her collection of photobooth photos that makes the case for the invention's commercial immortality and aesthetic potency, as the flat, unforgiving frontality of the snapshots amounts to a distinctive style. Although hidden from the world's view by the curtain, photobooth subjects can't hide from the camera, and so they are captured in a kind of vulnerable vérité, up close and personal in the truest sense. The greatest image here is probably the1953 honeymoon photo of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy--a shot worthy of Avedon or Karsh, with a beaming, boisterously handsome JFK and, pressed close behind him in the tightly shared space, a regally reserved Jackie, her white-gloved arm clutching his lapel. No other portrait of the fabled pair seems to convey their personalities with such ease and unstudied grace.

The other photos range widely and well, and there are many interesting shots of solitary sitters, inhabiting the booth with everything from misplaced vanity to exhibitionistic nudity to quiet desperation. Couples dominate, of course, whether mothers and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, or, always, lovers--some sharing a final photographic intimacy before one of them ships out. This is the sort of photography book that sneaks up on you, transcending a first impression as a mere trove of found photography, relentlessly random, and finally asserting some real narrative power amid the purity of so much unguarded imagery.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)