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From Atlas Obscura:

The Twilight of the Analog Photo Booth

The effort to save a rare beast on the road to extinction.

On a recent Saturday morning in New York, the analog photo booth in the Ace Hotel on 29th Street was out of order. Inside the booth, which costs $5 plus tax for a strip of four black-and-white photographs (cards accepted), a piece of paper hung askew atop the mirror, level with the sign reading “EYE LEVEL.” “Sorry, I’m broken …” it read. “I’ll be better soon. XO, Ace.” Barely a dozen of these film-based photo booths remain in the city, a fact that would have been inconceivable as recently as the 1990s.

In September 1925, the crowds stretched around the block for the first ever Photomaton studio, 30 blocks north of the present site of the Ace Hotel, at 51st Street and Broadway. Each subject paid 25 cents, was bathed in flashes of light, and waited eight minutes for a strip of eight photographs. Eighteen months later, the New York Times reported, “Young Photomaton Inventor Will Celebrate His First Million.” In today’s money, this would be close to $14 million.

Anatol Josepho, the inventor of the "Photomaton" photo booth that debuted in September 1925 at 1659 Broadway in New York City.
Anatol Josepho, the inventor of the “Photomaton” photo booth that debuted in September 1925 at 1659 Broadway in New York City. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ggbain-25079

The inventor, Anatol Josepho, was born in 1894, and came from nothing. Josepho, né Josephowitz, grew up a banished Jew in Siberia. At 15, he went off to explore the world, starting in Berlin, where he bought a Brownie camera and learned to take photographs. Later, he took it to Budapest, to Shanghai, and eventually to New York. In Harlem, in 1925, he raised the $11,000 required to build a prototype for the first curtain-enclosed photo booth—the cost of nearly six reasonably sized houses at that time. Josepho was charming, and obsessed with the project, writes photographer Näkki Goranin. Despite being a newcomer to the city, “[he] 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.”

Josepho stood on the shoulders of decades of tinkerers who had been flirting with this technology since the 1880s, when a craze for vending machines of all kinds, including seltzer, chocolate, and postcards, seized Europe and America. Concurrently, photographic technology was developing at a galloping pace. Some early booths offered prints for a penny, others unreliable tintypes with near-unrecognizable subjects. Throughout the 1920s, the technology was becoming more and more refined—until, in 1925, Josepho patented the booth that set the standard for the next 90 years.

Two friends pose for a picture in a photo booth, date unknown.
Two friends pose for a picture in a photo booth, date unknown. simpleinsomnia/CC BY 2.0

Before long the photo booth was everywhere: malls, bars, airports, post offices, Fred Astaire films. In the United States, they were often owned by the company PhotoMe, says Tim Garrett, an artist who co-runs the site Photobooth.Net with friend and colleague Brian Meacham.

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