Dip ’n’ Dunk

An award-winning graphic novel celebrates chemical photobooths and their legacy.

Among the most maddening contemporary conceits is the near-slavish acceptance of technological “progress.” This despite the many comparative shortcomings of electronic books, MP3s’ clear sonic inferiority to LPs, and, as Canadian artist and writer Meags Fitzgerald points out in her debut graphic novel, Photobooth: A Biography, the fact that digital photobooths lack the most appealing features of “dip ’n’ dunk” chemical development booths that they have almost entirely replaced.

Winner of the Canadian comics industry’s 2015 Doug Wright Spotlight Award, Photobooth is a conspicuously handsome volume. Fitzgerald mixes a history of chemical photobooths with her own personal journey in using them as she deftly blends graphic novel conventions with more traditional arrangements of text and pictures.

In chemical photobooth technology, acids operate on light-sensitive paper in total darkness to produce photostrips still damp when they reach sitters’ hands. This process provides distinct advantages over digital techniques, argues Fitzgerald. Whereas digital photos fade easily from sunlight and are shunned by archivists, those printed on chemical paper have proved to have great longevity. And while digital photobooths are being constantly upgraded and replaced, some of their chemical counterparts have endured so long they have produced strips numbering in the millions.

Pleading the continuing viability of a specific device is not Fitzgerald’s larger purpose, however. She is most concerned to provide a personal history that reveals the chemical photobooth’s role as both a talisman and artifact of a shared mass cultural experience. The “automatic photographic machine,” as it was originally called, had several unsuccessful predecessors. Fitzgerald credits inventor Anatol Josephewitz’s 1925 Photomaton as being the first true modern photobooth. As she explains, Josephewitz himself represented the quintessential American immigrant success story. A Jew from Siberia, he endured hardships including detention in a Bolshevik prison camp before reaching the United States and making his long-conceived invention a reality.

The device he developed was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. In its first years, crowds lined up around the block to sit before its lens. It was also ubiquitous: in major metropolises such as New York, the average person was likely to pass several booths daily.

For many users, Josephewitz’s device became a tool of self-creation. “Photobooths allowed people to document themselves as they wanted to be seen and as they saw themselves,” Fitzgerald writes. She juxtaposes this point with drawn historic images of African-Americans gussied up and posing with radiant pride. The semi-privacy of booths, too, allowed for spontaneous action and personal experimentation. Thanks to the pranks of exhibitionist couples, the booths developed a “naughty” reputation. More discreet users, such as gay lovers, took advantage of the privacy of curtained booths to capture expressions of love in dangerous times.

It was these dimensions that fascinated artists, including the Surrealists and Dadaists. Just as YouTube aficionados today recreate their favourite footage with imaginative recutting and remixing, users of the early photobooths creatively employed its technology in ways unintended by the booths’ developers. As revealed in Fitzgerald’s own artistic work, booths can simply be tools that, by their automated nature, ease the art-making process; Andy Warhol saw photobooths as producing “instant art,” his own screenprints of photostrips featured on the cover of Time.

Fitzgerald admits that the basic experience of using a photobooth remains the same with today’s digital booths. However, her nostalgia for chemical booths is based on more than emotion. There is, for one, the inimitable quality of the old-fashioned experience, in which you cannot pre-approve shots as you sometimes can using a digital machine—the resulting photos thus reflecting perhaps greater spontaneity and truth. The photographs produced by chemical booths are also unquestionably yours insofar as there is no negative, whereas companies own the files saved by digital booths.

For Fitzgerald there is more to it than that. “Personally,” she says, “I feel like collecting is about making a commitment to the material world.” But we are slowly losing the material signifiers of our own history. Some who have rescued vintage booths have struck a compromise, maintaining the aged physical structure but converting to digital machinery. A problem still remains, though, in digitization’s paradoxical distancing of people from the technological process; the result, Fitzgerald declares, is that “almost no one cares or thinks about how photographs are made.” What is enabled is high-functioning idiocy, in which we know what buttons to push but not exactly what happens next.

All this notwithstanding, it reflects something about public taste that chemical booths have survived this long, and as those who operate them have discovered, they generate comparable revenue to their digital replacements. The latter nonetheless require less maintenance and thus create lower overhead. As with everything else in our present corporatocracy, maximizing profit trumps all, which is why the historic photobooth companies have transitioned. The positive counterpoint is that the chemical booth has entered the hands of the kind of small, independent entrepreneurs who often creatively obtained a piece of the photobooth craze in its heyday, and who found it can still be a viable income generator.

However, all this ends soon, for the extinction of chemical booths is almost inevitable. This is because the existing stockpile of paper for colour booths is set to run out this very summer, and because of safety concerns (not least, worries about potential carcinogenic effects) are unlikely to be augmented. And it is precisely because they are doomed creatures, Fitzgerald concedes, that she so loves old photobooths. While she never quite says it, her love is also clearly about self-preservation: her journey of self in the book is not merely exploration of her identity—it is about saving from oblivion tangible physical markers of this identity. For her as for so many others, photobooths are safe spaces for the rehearsal of self, without judgement. She even describes them as a womb.

Photobooth possesses striking creativity in conception, design and presentation, but it is not perfect. Fitzgerald’s draftsmanship is at times stylistically wanting and curiously, for a book about a technology that records the self at inimitable moments, many of Fitzgerald’s drawn faces have a bland sameness to them. In addition, she has made an error in judgement by substituting drawn for actual reproductions of photostrips, completely negating the very qualities of photobooth images for which she has presented such a heartfelt case. We are denied encountering the faces we are shown as only photographs can capture them, the very element of photography that so captivated the public to start with.

Yet the nostalgia for chemical booths that enthusiasts like Fitzgerald feel is easy to sympathize with. One need merely consider the loving craftsmanship of some models, such as the 1934 Photomatic, which boasts an Art Deco exterior and detailing. A device such as this eloquently reflects a bygone era, especially for those of us living in an age when, with the ascendance of corporate ugliness embodied in the Walmart shopping experience, even the simplest aesthetic considerations are denied ordinary people. Fitzgerald has done a service in capturing an important episode in the history of popular photography just as it is finally passing, ensuring that its glories are neither forgotten nor uncelebrated.