Four for a Quarter

Photographer Nakki Goranin shows how the once ubiquitous photobooth captured the many faces of 20th-century America

Photobooth photo
There are about 250 authentic chemical photobooths left in the United States Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Nakki Goranin and I squeeze into a cramped photobooth in a Vermont shopping mall and practice our expressions. Goranin, a veteran, tries out some wacky poses, sticking her tongue out and squinting at the lens. I'm a bit more inhibited and, as the camera clicks off four shots, stick with a bemused smile. A minute later, the machine spits out a photo strip.

"I love them," says Goranin of the photos. "They're the real Nakki." Goranin, who lives in Burlington and has just published an illustrated history of the machine, American Photobooth, asks me to sign and date the back of the strip, just as she did in the late 1960s growing up in Chicago and sharing photobooth photos with her friends.

The routine is familiar to the generations of Americans who documented everyday moments by jumping inside a booth and popping a quarter into the slot. Still, Goranin doesn't much care for the mall's machine, which is digital—the print quality is not what it used to be. But, she says, there are only about 250 authentic chemical booths left in the United States, and she knows of none available to the public in Vermont.

As Goranin, a photographer and self-described romantic, sees it, photo strips tell the story of 20th-century American history from the ground up. The images in her new book, culled from thousands she has collected at auctions, flea markets and antiques stores, show down-at-the-heels farmers in overalls, wartime sweethearts and 1950s boys with greased hair and ducktails. She points out a photo of a World War II-era couple kissing passionately. "Day before he left," the notation reads.

Before the photobooth first appeared, in the 1920s, most portraits were made in studios. The new, inexpensive process made photography accessible to everyone. "For 25 cents people could go and get some memory of who they were, of a special occasion, of a first date, an anniversary, a graduation," Goranin says. "For many people, those were the only photos of themselves that they had."

Because there is no photographer to intimidate, photobooth subjects tend to be much less self-conscious. The result—a young boy embracing his mother or teenagers sneaking a first kiss—is often exceptionally intimate. "It's like a theater that's just you and the lens," Goranin says. "And you can be anyone you want to be."

Goranin's photobooth obsession began after her mother died in 1999. She needed to continue her photography, but couldn't focus on her work or bring herself to go back into the darkroom. Frequenting photobooths was the answer, she says. After a while, Goranin got the idea to publish her collection of self-portraits—now part of the permanent collection of the International Center for Photography in New York City—along with a brief history of the machine. But she was surprised by the dearth of information about the machine's origins or development; she set off from her cozy white Vermont house to see what she could discover for herself. That was nine years ago.

Goranin pored through microfilm of old newspapers. She drove back and forth across the United States and Canada interviewing anyone connected with the business that she could track down. When she telephoned the son of a long-dead early photobooth operator, she learned that only the day before, he had thrown away a trove of vintage photographs and business records. Goranin persuaded him to climb into a Dumpster to retrieve the items. Goranin even bought her own fully functioning 1960s-era photobooth and is now restoring two others that she also purchased.

The history she eventually put together chronicles the rapid rise and remarkable longevity of the machine. In the 1920s, an enterprising Siberian immigrant named Anatol Josepho perfected a fully automated process that produced a positive image on paper, eliminating the need not only for negatives but for operators as well. His "Photomaton" studio, which opened in 1926 on Broadway in New York City, was an immediate hit. Crowds lined up to pay 25 cents for a strip of eight photos. Within a few years, photobooths could be found from Paris to Shanghai.

Even amid the worldwide depression of the 1930s, the photobooth continued to grow. Entrepreneurs who couldn't afford to buy the real thing built their own versions, some out of wood, then hid a photographer in the back who shot and developed the pictures and slipped them through a slot. The unsuspecting subjects were none the wiser.

By mid-century, photobooths were ubiquitous. Jack and Jackie Kennedy stepped into one in the 1950s. Yoko Ono and John Lennon included a reproduction strip with their 1969 recording, "Wedding Album." In the 1960s, Andy Warhol shuttled models with rolls of quarters from booth to booth in New York City. A 1965 Time magazine cover features Warhol's photobooth portraits of "Today's Teen-Agers."

These days digital photobooths, which became available in the 1990s, let users add novelty messages and backgrounds and delete and retake shots. Allen Weisberg, president of Apple Industries, which has manufactured digital booths since 2001, says digital photobooth sales continue to grow. "Photobooths have made a tremendous resurgence," he says. "It's like apple pie and baseball. It's part of our heritage." The digital booths are being used in new ways. Lately, a number of companies have popped up offering rentals of lightweight, portable photobooths for use at weddings and parties.

But Goranin and other purists long for the real McCoy with its distinctive smell, clanking machinery and the fraught anticipation that comes with waiting for the photos to appear. A Web site, Photobooth.net, documents the locations of a dwindling number of these mechanical dinosaurs.

"The old chemistry booths, which I love, are becoming harder and harder to find," says Goranin. "But the [digital] booth is still a fun experience. You still get great photos. You still have a wonderful time in them. You still have the old-fashioned curtains that you can draw and that sense of mystery." Goranin smiles. "There's nothing in the world like a photobooth."

Kenneth R. Fletcher last wrote about Richard Misrach's beach images.

Two Marines relaxing before shipping off to Korea. Camp Pendleton, Calif. (Marine Corps Base at Oceanside, Calif.) in 1951 Richard Grant
Photo of me and my mom taken September 22, 1959. I was two years old Teresa Hatcher
Robert G. Scott and my best childhood friend Charles H. Button in the photobooth at Neisners 5 & 10 Store in Royal Oak, Mich., circa 1950 Robert Scott
My mother who never liked her picture taken, agreed to use the photobooth David Sneade
Anne & Paula at Canobie Lake Anne Harpin
My 3-year-old son, Dale Alan Fry. December 22, 1961 John LaPorta
Photo was taken in a booth at the Manassas Mall, Manassas, Va. in 1975 Michael Baldinger
Tim and Carol Herd and their children Andrew, Daniel, Becky, Philip all squeeze into a booth in Ocean City, N.J. in the summer of 1988 Tim Herd
Best friends since the third grade, Tembi and Nancy laugh hysterically in a photobooth in Needles, Calif., 2008. Nancy Jaramillo
These are photos my best friend of five years. I took them at a photobooth in the mall. She was visiting from California after being gone for over a year and a half Susan Baker
This photograph is of my late husband Niel and youngest son Elliot. It was taken at a boardwalk booth at Playland in the Rockaways, around 1965 Carol Peper-Goldsmith
UCSD undergrad in 1977 takes photobooth photos at the suggestion of a professor to see how he changed over time Mike Eschbach
June Fletcher of Pierrepoint Manor, N.Y. at the age of 16. Photo was taken in 1955 in Watertown, N.Y. at a Woolworth store June Bruyns
My friend Len and I. Philadelphia, Pa., 1979 Mike Cole
A special day with Grandma Kennedy for Brian and Joe Carbo, New Orleans, La., 1950s Brian Carbo
Photobooth photo of Alan Hills taken at Clacton Beach in Essex, England a month before World War II began. Hills was 12-years-old and bicycled 63 miles from his home to Clacton beach. To prove he reached his destination, he took a photobooth picture. Alan Hills
Nora Fromm and cousin. Street festival, New York City, 1942 Nora Fromm
Catherine Ramsey Blyth with a companion Liz Ramsey
Traveling salesman Charles E. Baird in 1912. Theodore Baird
My husband John and I having fun in our new model 12 photobooth John and Louise Birdsell
Robb, Mike, Gloria and Rhea Lou. Union Station, Kansas City, Mo., 1958 Michael Thomas White
Just engaged! December 1969, Sacramento, Calif. Alice & Doug Walker
Sneaking a smoke. Dublin, Ireland, mid 1960s Ray Hickey
Friends in a photobooth at a California amusement park Kathryn Kuchenbrod
Father and son Arnold Pulda
Cris and Molly having a great time during a daddy/daughter outing Cris Lewis and Molly Waters
Photobooth photos throughout the years Alison Wilcox DiPietro
Formerly "ours." Taken at Union Pool bar in Brooklyin, N.Y. Alexandra Marvar
My wife and I in 1977. Eleven years earlier we were in the same Ocean City, N.J. photobooth before I left for the Marine Corps Mike Haggarty
"First Love." Cheryle and I were married September 1973 and she passed away on Nov. 17, 1975 John Shattuck
"Inner self" Racine, Wis., 1971 Phyllis Townsend
First time for grandpa! Bert Maness
Winter of 1984 in Times Square, N.Y. Darren Chase
My best friend Jill and I from a photobooth in the early 1980s in Detroit, Michigan Lori
David and Julie are brother and sister and were friends of mine down at the Jersey shore Bruce Thompson
David and Littlejohn on the Santa Monica Pier in 1973 David Scott
These are pictures of my son Dyland and I. We like to take pictures in photobooths whenever we find one Keith Higgins
Hula pals Lorraine Jacquard
These photobooth pictures of Grant Lester and his grandmother Kim Seward-Goda were taken July of 2008 at Gilroy Gardens, Calif. Kim Seward-Goda
Flash! What was that? Peggy Hartzell
An artists obsession with photobooths Anna Koon
Celebrate! Steve Harris
Photobooth photo taken at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa. on my 25th birthday. Sarah Anne Clarke
Photobooth photos of me, my brother John and my cousin Angela. All were taken in the mid to late 70s in Hot Springs, Ark. Catina Norman
Baby love. Photo was taken at BYU, 2008 Harini Reed
A kiss is just a kiss. Times Square, 1980s Liz Grace and Joe Flood
Before our wedding. Asbury Park, N.J., 1963 Bruce Martin
Joe Cool in the 50s Harvey A. Thorn
Still together Rhonda Backinoff Kaplan
"Too much in love to say good-night" Martin & Esther Bates
Bette, 1946. Taken in Los Angeles, Calif. at the age of 16 Bette Redmayne
Bruno Joly and I in Paris, France. Sadly, Bruno passed away a few years ago but he was always funny and joyful! Laure Duhard
My daughter Caitie and I taking a break to be silly David Ball
Blake and Drew in 1993 Sara Palazzari
Myself at age 18 in Providence, R.I. Althea Morin
Just foolin' around in Manitou Springs, Colo. 1980 Donna Wilcox
Kimi & Collie. Two young Air Force girls! Colleen Soehnlein
My daughter's first experience with the joys and mysteries of the photobooth Erin McGreal
My young sister Denise and I throughout the 80s Windey McKelvie
Photo in the upper left is the first picture taken of myself in 1977 (before my mom passed away). The last three photos were taken of my mom and I in 19776. She died of cancer in 1977 so I treasure these pictures Ray Myers
Jim Firak and father Gerald R. Firak
Ellen Kielty, 17, and Bud Anderson, 25, now married for 60 years Ellen and Eugene (Bud) Anderson
Happily married. Sandra Bestland & William Conway
Robert Henry Hubsch, deck hand on USS American Trader. Later, Chief Warrant Officer in the Africa, Italy and European theaters, WWII. John Labie
"Sisters." 1953, Spokane, Wash. Russ Helgeson
My siblings and I goofing around. Taz
I came home from the Navy, July 1946. I did not date my future bride until she was 17 years old, which dates this picture around 1948/1949. We married in 1950. Robert K. Efaw
My sister and cousin clowning around in a photobooth. Richard Hébert
We thought there was only going to be one picture... Ted and Joyce Betz
Irene, Ronald and Norman Parr most likely in Blackpool, England, 1935. Kathleen Ritchie
Ken and Martha Adams in 1967 at the Coleman Brothers Carnival, Willimantic, Conn. Kenneth Adams
Kathleen Clavin
The Birth of Adam Adam Smith
This was taken in 1990 in Grants Pass, Ore. Jennifer, Linda, Kenneth and Stephanie crammed into an old photobooth at the Josephine County Fair. Stephanie Hatch
Matt and Renee Parrill. Photo taken November 8, 1994. Renee and Matthew Parrill
New Grandma. Lenore Thorne (1921-2003) with me in 1973. This was my first Christmas in Everett, Wash. Photo was probably taken at the Northgate Mall or Aurora Village in Seattle. Julie Sisson
Daddy's girls all spiffed up! Sheila Mahanke Barnes
Quintessential. James Hicks
These photos of me were taken at US Air Force Basic Training at Lackland AFB, Texas in August, 1973. I was 18 years old . The good photo went to my mother. Stephen D. Holton
A photo of Pat, a teenager in the 1940s taken in a Loop 5 & 10 cent store in Chicago, Ill. Nikki Trott
Summer Lovin' 2008. Florida girl Ashley experiences the Jersey shore for the first time with her boyfriend Joel! Joel Newman
Twin sisters Julie and Jane. Jane Sander
This is a picture of Jean Lodeen taken some time in 1965 in a photobooth. She was 30 at the time. Jean Lodeen
This is a photo of my children taken at a fair in 1970. Martie Jordan
Bill and Jill, 1974. William F. Morris / Jill Susan Miller-Morris
My best friend Janet and I when we were 15 years old. We both turned 61 this year and we're still BFF! RosieMarie Anderson
Pictures of my two daughters, Kelly and Rachael, having fun in a photobooth in March of 1993. Teresa Hatcher
Ralph Earl McNaughton and Ethel Chamberlin-McNaughton of Chardon, Ohio taken in an early photobooth at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-1937 in Cleveland, Ohio. Douglas K.
This is a photo of Marie and Frank taken in a photobooth at Rye Beach, New York on a senior trip in 1961. Marie Giargiana
This is a photo of Pat and Mike. It was taken late one night at a local San Francisco bar. It is one of the few physical pictures that I have of my friend. Patrick Gin
This is a photo of my husband and I on our wedding day (August 8, 2008). We rented a digital photobooth from RedCheese Photobooth for our reception in the San Francisco Bay area. Elizabeth Obreza & Philip Hurst
"My dad, Vince Glorius and I, David, hamming it up in Miami, Florida about 1960-61." David V. Glorius, Ocala, Fla.
"There is no photographer to intimidate, subjects tend to be much less self-conscious," says Goranin Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
There are about 250 authentic chemical photobooths left in the United States Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
"People don't understand the historical or fine arts value of photobooths," says Näkki Goranin Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Couple embrace each other in a photobooth a day before he left to fight in the war Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Most portraits were made in studios. Photobooths made it so everyone could afford to capture a memory Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Photobooths, says Goranin, "brought a tremendous amount of happiness to a lot of people" Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
When I look at photobooth images, stories come into my mind," Goranin says. "It's like seeing frames in a home movie" Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Näkki Goranin is restoring two photobooths and has photobooth self-portraits in the permanent collection of the International Center for Photography in New York City Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
In 1965, Time magazine featured a cover with Andy Warhol's photobooth portraits of "Today's Teen-Agers" Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
"[Photobooths] tell so much about the country and what we've gone through," Goranin says Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
"Behind the curtain, people could be themselves or become who they wanted to be," says Goranin Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
The automatic photobooth machine was perfected by an enterprising Siberian immigrant, Anatol Josepho, in the 1920s Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
By the late 1950s, photobooths like this Auto-Photo Co. model boasted Art Deco designs made of wood or painted metal Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
"Photobooths have made a tremendous resurgence," president of Apple Industries, Allen Weisberg Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Näkki Goranin self-portrait with Amelie Reprinted from American Photobooth (c) Näkki Goranin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.