A Brief History of the Photo-booth

by Birna Marianne Kleivan, writer, lecturer and curator based in Copenhagen.


See also: www.photobooth.net


Anatol M. Josepho (March 31, 1894 – December 1980), born Anatol Josephewitz, was a Siberian immigrant to the United States of America, who in 1925 invented and patented the photo booth. In 1927, he was paid one million dollars for the invention.


The history of the photo booth began more than a hundred years ago. The invention of automatic picture-taking was both a result of the democratisation of the portrait and the automat craze that took hold of Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, when electricity and especially the electric motor made an increasing standardisation and automation of production possible.


In 1889 American photographer Mathew Steffens patented his Automatic Photographic Apparatus, and in the same year a similar machine designed for automatic picture-taking was presented by Theophile Enjabert at the World Exhibition in Paris. These early versions of the photo-booth were never a success, though they caused quite a sensation. With the introduction of the German Bosco-automat the situation changed and by 1900 automatic photography machines could be found at all major fairs and markets, where they served as popular suppliers of unpretentious souvenir photos competing with the many street photographers who also offered cheap tin-type portraits.


An increasingly commercial utilization began in the late 1920s, when Anatol Josepho, a Siberian-American, patented his Photomaton, in New York. Producing a strip of 8 photographs of good quality in 8 minutes, Josephos machine can be considered as a predecessor of the well-known 4-strip. Provided with a small cabin the Photomaton, differed considerably from the first automatic photography machines that were freestanding, often resembling grandfather clocks. The Photomaton was an immediate success and in 1927 Josepho sold the patent for $1 million to an international business consortium. By the 1930s the Photomaton, was common at fairs, amusement parks, department stores and railway stations across the world. In Europe mainly serving as a provider of ID-photos, in the United States the photo-booth was primarily used for entertainment and souvenir photos a fashion which continues to this day.


In the early years using a photo-booth was not quite the private affair it would become. To take a Photomaton image, attendants wearing white gloves took customers´ money and suggested flattering poses, according to Näkki Goranin, author of American Photo-booth (2008). Curtains were added later, encouraging face pulling but also inviting romantic and sometimes risqué behaviour.


Andy Warhol elevated the automatic, serially produced booth photograph to the status of art at the beginning of the 1960s. This paralleled the Pop Art aesthetic of the anonymous, mass-produced and reproduced pictorial universe of consumer and popular culture. Inspired by him, artists started using the machine as a medium of creative expression.


During the 1970s the photo-booth market began to decline, partly due to the success of Polaroid and the popularity of new, cheap disposable cameras. The situation improved from 1993, when Photo-Me launched Photovision, the first digital photo booth. Offering an option to re-pose without extra charge, the machine proved to be a landmark in the history of the photo-booth and soon came to replace the traditional analogue booth. A variety of digital “fun” photo-booths followed, enjoying considerable popularity among youngsters. Since 2000 the photo-booth has experienced increasing competition from cellphone cameras and the new digital medias.


The spontaneity and surprise vanished in the transition from analogue to digital, from grain to pixel. The former was part of the charm of paying a visit to the photo-booth. Identity photos produced by the machine are now however more useable, and if accepted for passport purposes can also be adjusted to the new biometric photographic requirements, introduced as part of the upgraded surveillance and security requirements after 9/11 in 2001. Whether this is enough to guarantee the future of the digital photo-booth only time will tell. One thing is certain; the disappearing black and white 4-strip analogue booth has gained cult status and it is hard to imagine that the intimacy of the curtained photo-booth ever losing its attraction.