Steven Heller’s Evolution: Lights, Camera

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Read the Evolution column, “Lights, Camera” written by Steven Heller from the new August 2013 issue of Print. Be sure to pick up a copy of Print’s Photography issue today to engage with current trends and issues in the field.


Before the Polaroid, photobooths captured and captivated the masses.

Instant photography today is as simple as making a phone call—maybe even simpler. More than 100 years ago, before the advent of Polaroid film and digital cameras, a Siberian immigrant named Anatol (Josephewitz) Josepho, the son of a prominent jeweler, invented the first photobooth machine. The contraption was so popular that people lined up outside his Times Square studio to be photographed in his incredible Photomaton. Josepho was committed to creating a faster and cheaper way to make photos available to the average person. To this end, he devised a preliminary design for a pod that would instantly snap and automatically process pictures in just four minutes.

There were earlier attempts at photobooth technology, writes Näkki Goranin in “American Photobooth” (W.W. Norton & Company). The Bosco Automat, a coin-operated automatic photographic booth patented in 1890 and named after an Italian magician, delivered a ferrotype in three minutes, which was developed and fixed in a small tin dish. But it didn’t last. In 1925, Josepho opened the Photomaton Studio on Broadway, between 51st and 52nd streets. Reportedly, more than 7,500 people a day queued up to spend 25 cents for eight photos.

In 1927, “The New York Times” ran a business story slugged “Slot Photo Device Brings $1,000,000 to Young Inventor.” Josepho’s investors understood that personal photography was the next big thing and that the Photomaton could do for the photographic field what “Woolworth’s accomplished in novelties and merchandise, Ford in automobiles and the chain store in supplying the necessities and luxuries of life.” In short, the photo booth was destined to become an American symbol of transformative technology.

There were predictably some competitors, too. John Anton Slack founded the American Portraiture Corporation and refined Josepho’s procedures, speeding up the process and inventing new “apps,” including silhouettes. He opened a studio on Broadway, between 47th and 48th Streets. By 1934, the International Mutoscope and Reel Company, founded by William Rabkin, who later also bought the copyright of the Photomaton, redesigned the booths in an art deco style and renamed the machine the “Photomatic.” In the 1940s, the business expanded into venues like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority, Penn Station, Grand Central Station and more.

The general public was seduced by these visual confessionals, which by the 1950s were ubiquitous in five-and-10-cent stores and penny arcades. By the mid-fifties, Auto-Photo, the company that absorbed Photomaton, began receiving complaints from Woolworth’s and other clients that their customers—particularly young women—were putting on lewd shows for the camera and frisky couples were caught in naughty acts behind the curtain. As a result, Woolworth’s removed the curtains on their booths.

Andy Warhol brought the photobooth into the art and design world while on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar in 1964 when he placed his models in booths and snapped away. That same year, Warhol introduced photobooth images into his art. Warhol was the most notable of many artists and designers to engagethe machine.

With the introduction of digital media in the 1990s, a young company called Photo-Me promoted digital color photobooths using a computer and printout paper. Yet nothing beat the sepia-tone, black-and-white photobooth for capturing a certain kind of truth. Today, almost a century since the first Photomaton, photobooths remain objects of fascination. They are still found in public venues and have gained popularity at weddings, private parties and other events.

Don’t miss learning even more about the history of photography and modern issues. Pick up the August 2013 issue of Print, the Photography issue today.