Monday, 15 December 2008

The Beginning

It was following a trip to Berlin in the Summer the obsession with photobooths began. Not the Photo-Me booths which are ubiquitous at railway stations, Boots and Woolworths, but the original, chemical, negative-less photobooths which flash four times and give you a strip of 4 different poses. In Berlin, a group called Photoautomat have collected and lovingly restored these old booths, converting them to accept the Euro and dotting them all over the city for the general public to use. It is a joy to see the slightly damp strip of photographs fall into the slot, with the familiar smell of darkroom chemicals and knowing that this is ultimately unique – it can never be reproduced in its original form.

On return to the UK, the search began to find such booths in this country. Pleas for information were posted on discussion sites, photobooth aficionados and companies were contacted; all to no avail. This country had truly gone digital, and, on entering a digital photobooth, I found out why. It seems that, to apply for a passport in Britain, one needs 2 identical passport photos. To this end, the digital booth is absolutely necessary and useful. But where is the fun?

In the USA, the story of photobooths is a totally different one. Chemical booths, both colour and black and white, are still in abundance (although sadly disappearing suddenly too). The concept behind the photobooth there is more in tune with the reason it was invented – it is a form of entertainment. The stools of many of the booths are also storage trunks for costumes, hats, and other props. The idea of dressing up and performing in front of an automated camera is fun and less intimidating than doing so in front of a human photographer. The photobooth is a place for friends to gather and each have an image to go home with to remind them of the event.

This idea has been translated into the digital age with purikura (or Print Club) in Japan. These oversized booths are large enough to stand up in, and large enough for up to six people. 12 flashes are fired; 6 from waist height (frontal), and 6 from above, so you are to look up to the screen which flatters the face. Once the pictures are taken the subjects choose four which they can manipulate by adding stars, drawing frames, writing messages and other bits and pieces. Although digital, each frame is unique and has the creative input of the user.

It is no coincidence that I am writing this a few months after Polaroid have discontinued their range. Polaroids were in a sense the precursor to digital cameras because you could see the image straight away; again, there was the joy of seeing the image appear before your eyes and knowing it was unique. No negative was available, and they had a shelf life – colours would fade and age over time, flaws would appear in the surface. But this, as with the photobooth, was their charm.

So it is time to bring back this sense of entertainment and nostalgia to the UK. After many hours on the internet and posts on discussion sites, we received an offer to buy one from Berlin. A photobooth enthusiast there was buying four or five from Estonia and getting them shipped over – he has a booth in Moscow and needed spare parts, and was looking for buyers for the other booths. Finding out the logistics made us think twice; the booth weighs 400kg, and hasn’t been used for many years. But, we figured that some things just need trying, so we jumped in feet first. Where to put it and how to work it were questions which would come later…

This was back in October; the booth is, at present, happily ensconced in very cheap storage in Berlin awaiting a new lease of life in London. The first major hurdle has only just been solved; the booth will be housed in an artist’s studio in Deptford, called Utrophia. We are excited about being there – the other occupants are the first people to whom we told our ambitious project who haven’t looked at us as if we are crazy!

As for how to work it, this will be a long, steep learning curve. The booth will be shipped over to London in January, and we intend to post our progress on this blog, along with the odd pic of our adventures. So watch this space!