Kenneth R. Fletcher on “Four for a Quarter”

Kenneth R. Fletcher with Nakki Goranin in a photobooth
Courtesy of Kenneth R. Fletcher

Kenneth Fletcher graduated with a master's degree in journalism from University of Maryland, where he covered agriculture and the environment for the Capital News Service, in 2007. From there, he became Smithsonian's writing intern, contributing primarily to the magazine's Around the Mall section. I recently caught up with Fletcher, who has since left the magazine to freelance from Latin America, to chat about his experience reporting and writing "Four for a Quarter," in our September issue.

What drew you to this story?
Back in April, Nakki Goranin came to the American History museum to give a talk about her new book. I thought it would be a great story. The pictures in the book are very arresting. They're very intimate portraits unlike any other historical photography I had seen. And Goranin's enthusiasm is contagious. She spent years and years crisscrossing the US and Canada to put together a comprehensive history of the photobooth. That's dedication.

Had you used photobooths before? If so, what memories had you captured in them?
I didn't really grow up in the photobooth's heyday. I do remember seeing them around as a kid but never actually used one. After speaking with Goranin the first time, I went to the Web site and looked at the list of remaining classic chemical photobooths. There happened to be one at a mall just a few miles from my house. I had to give it a try. I headed over there one Sunday afternoon, fed a few crumpled bills into the machine and sat through the four shots, trying to figure out what expression I wanted on my face. Chemical booths take only a few minutes to develop the pictures, so I sat in the food court anxiously awaiting my strip. When it finally popped out of the slot, the strip showed three teenage girls crowded into the booth making funny faces. There must have been some malfunction and I got the strip of whoever was in there before me. So it's likely that later that day some teenagers were very disappointed when they got a strip of four boring pictures of me.

Do you think they will be on your radar now? That you'll look for them in malls and things?
I'm sure that I'll notice photobooths more now that I've done the story, and probably start rattling off obscure photobooth history and the pros and cons of digital booths to whoever is with me. And I might even get in a booth again and hope that this time my picture comes out.

What do you think is behind the photobooth's longevity? Why are sales still up and people still wanting to use them?
Goranin and others will say that being in a photobooth is a magical experience. It's true that posing for a machine gives you a freedom unlike any other form of photography. But I think there are less abstract reasons that explain its longevity despite a proliferation of cheap digital photography. It's quick and easy to take your picture in a booth on a whim. It's a very controlled environment, so you know you'll get a decent portrait. And, unlike a digital camera, you almost instantly get something you can hold in your hand and keep.

What was the highlight of your reporting in Vermont?
Goranin is really lively; she's got a great personality. In her home she has thousands of photobooth pictures she's collected. When I visited her, she spread a few dozen of her favorites on the table and told me there were 80 years of photo strips there, from 1927 until today. To see firsthand these pictures that people obviously cherished made a big impression on me. I wondered about all the stories behind the photos. Who were they? And what made them decide to enter that booth?

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