The 2012 International Photobooth Convention was held this past weekend at the Electric Lodge in Venice. Yes, a gathering for hard-core enthusiasts of booths where you sit and get your photo taken.
But let's clear things up. These are not the digital photo booths of today. They are not the kind your cousin Denise had at her wedding, which seemed like a good idea until everyone was taking hilarious photos of themselves instead of paying attention to the cake-cutting ceremony and she cried.
These are the photochemical booths of yesteryear. The kind that haven't been made since the '70s/early '80s, can be expensive to maintain, require chemicals, and are a pretty rare commodity. Rare in the sense that, as convention co-founder Brian Meacham explained, these photo booths may have gotten new shells in the '90s but the moving parts are hodge-podged around from different machines. Even rarer in the sense that, we learned, all the old photochemical photo booths in Europe have been trashed, save a few Swiss booths now in Berlin; all the rest are digital. There is a growing community for photochemical booth fanatics and artists and this was their Comic-Con.
The 2012 convention was put on by Meacham and Tim Garrett, co-founders of Photobooth.net, a website “dedicated to all things photo booth with an emphasis on the powerful and enduring legacy of the photochemical photo booth.” The first convention of its kind was in 1999 in Nottingham, England, put on by Steve Howard, a British photo booth artist; the event has since traveled to London, Belgrade and New York.
These early conventions were just small gatherings of people at a bar or an art space, but Meacham explained, “When Tim and I started our website in 2005, we knew of these conventions and decided to make it ambitious. We said, 'Let's make this a bigger deal and on a larger scale.'” So they collaborated with Howard and maintain a good relationship (no competitiveness here — this is a friendly community of photo booth lovers) and Photobooth.net began hosting their next-level conventions “every couple years or so” in St. Louis, Chicago and now, this year, in Los Angeles.
How do they chose the locations? Meacham explained, “Whatever city has an energy and also people there that can help out. We'd love to do one on the East Coast soon. In the past six to seven years photo booths have gotten big in Portland and Seattle, so that's an option. Also, we'd love to go to Canada. Montreal, perhaps more than any city in the world, has a big photo booth scene.”
We attended the opening reception Friday night, which had about 25 to 30 people in attendance at any given time. A $5 “suggested donation” got you unlimited photo booth photos (black & white and color machines were on site) and wine or soda. A DJ set up shop and there was a raffle for a chance to win swag (printed posters, T-shirts and other things of that nature).
Most attendees were friends of friends or heard about it via word of mouth. Naturally, there were a lot of photographers, photography fanatics and artists. Along with the Friday night reception, Saturday brought a series of photo booth-related talks, workshops and collaborative projects for visitors to take part in. These included a project where you describe the plot of your favorite movie in your four-shot photo booth series and hang it on the wall for others to critique and enjoy.
Perhaps the biggest draw was the collection of art commemorating the 25th anniversary of a landmark (some called it the first) major group show devoted to art created in the photobooth: “Photomaton: A Contemporary Survey of Photobooth Art,” held in 1986 in Rochester, N.Y. (hellooo Kodak central), organized by artist Bern Boyle.
Artwork from the original show was up around the space, and one of the original artists, George Berticevich, a colorfully enjoyable and kind fellow, was in attendance, mingling with guests and sharing his inspirations and insights. We came to the convention to learn a little bit about photo booths and left after having had a conversation with him about human rights, the oppressed people of Burma, Tibetan culture, Chinese politics and the thought process and inspiration behind “panoramic photos, perception and seeing things full circle.”
The convention came to a close on Sunday with a guided tour of Los Angeles-area photo booths, including the Darkroom, the Cha Cha Lounge, Mohawk Bend and the Standard Hotel. From the location map it seems most L.A. photo booths are in West Hollywood, Los Feliz/Silver Lake and downtown, and are almost exclusively in bars.
What gets a bar to have a photo booth? Meacham explained, “Some places like Mohawk Bend outright buy them, but other places get them from Photomat in Orange County and have a profit-sharing deal. When you buy them, you have to keep up with the maintenance, and that can be a lot of work.”
So what do these bars have in common that they would all want to rent out an old-school photochemical booth instead of a digital one? Meacham says they “cater to a certain clientele. … I don't know if you want to call them hipsters but…” Fine, as much as we are so over that term, we will. “Many are dive bars but some are hipster beer bars.” Aren't these the same thing? So, OK, hipsters like photo booths, but I refuse to believe that hipsters are the only group of people that would appreciate them. Maybe they're just more likely to spend money on them while drunk at a bar on Saturday night? Or perhaps they're just more likely to cram into one with four of their friends. I mean, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are not about to smash into one together for fear of ruining their pricey Brian Atwood shoes.
The first photo booth came to America in 1926 and was located on Broadway in New York City. It cost 25 cents for eight photos and, for the first time, gave people the chance to have photos instantly and cheaply. Now, you can take a million photos on your phone and scroll through them immediately. You can instantly post it for the world to see and you can delete them as fast as you take them. Times have changed. Perhaps this is the biggest draw to the photo booth.
“There's a sort of nostalgia to it,” Meacham says. “And you're usually with friends or a loved one, so it's a happy moment. Also the illusion of privacy you get from that 2-foot-tall curtain. You don't know what you're getting and sometimes you're not ready. Everyone looks good in them. The lighting, the composition, contrast, density.”
This may be why I saw a dude with a stack of 50 of them on Friday. However, instead of labeling him as a narcissist, I figured he was a budding photo booth artist working on his latest project. After all, it was an inspiring event and the community seems to have a supportive and creative energy.
Meacham went on, “It's just unique. There's no negative, no other copy. It's the only one there will ever be.” It's like why people buy records (or even CDs at this point) — there's something nice about holding and touching music, seeing the artwork and decoratively displaying it in your house. There are so many photos in your phone or on your computer, but being able to actually hold a strip of photos is a special kind of thing.