Five minutes into our conversation, Gary Gulley articulates my fascination with photo booths, those magical vendors of four vertical photographs.
“It kind of flashes unpredictably — catches you the least little bit off guard,” says Gulley, sales executive for Photo-Me USA, the American division of one of the two largest photo booth companies in the world. “It catches you in transition.”
In other words, they capture the most real you.
For me, finding a photo booth is like discovering a chocolate egg long after Easter has ended. They’re often stashed away in the forgotten corners of America, in the dusty backroom of bars or lost in aging arcades.
As the son of Baby Boomers, I didn’t grow up in the height of photo booth popularity during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — but I still plug in the $2 or $3 wherever I find them.
Photo booths, in recent years, have enjoyed a heightened profile. They played a pivotal role in the breakout French comedy “Amelie,” and no fewer than three photo booth books have hit the shelves in the past two years. But nationally, fewer than 1,500 vintage photo booths dot a map of the U.S., according to Photo-Me — although competitor Fantasy Entertainment has produced 3,500 “foto” machines, which use modern technology to vend digital pictures of different sizes and variations.
In the post-World War II boom of the photo booth craze, more than 30,000 units found homes in train stations, tourist destinations and corner dime stores. It’s difficult to ascertain if photo booths are experiencing resurgence or if they are continuing to quietly go extinct, so I hit the road to document the state of booths in Chicagoland and nail down their cultural allure.
Outside the U.S., 90 percent of all photo booth images are used for official I.D. documents. In the U.S., Gulley tells me, 90 percent of photo booth pictures are impulse entertainment buys.
I’ve taken so many photo strips over the years, you could probably arrange them in a book, flip through rapidly and watch my hairline retreat. Whenever I’m under the black lights at Diversey River Bowl, I step into the booth. Breakfast in Rogers Park’s Heartland Cafe demands a post-omelet photo shoot. While reporting this story, I climbed into every photo booth I could find.
“Why don’t you try to get someone into the booth with you at each place?” suggested my editor.
This turned out to be an exceptionally bad idea.
At Woodmar Mall in Hammond, Ind., I found that even with business card in hand and the purest of motives, asking strangers to join me in the photo booth was interpreted as severely creepy.
The photo booth experience, it seems, is a distinctly intimate one, yet that is part of its allure. The illicit sound of the curtain being pulled across the closet-size doorway, a thin barrier from public space, creates a sense of privacy — often bringing out the exhibitionist in people, says director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour,” “Red Dragon”).
Ratner installed a black-and-white photo booth in his game room and recently published “Hilhaven Lodge: The Photo Booth Pictures” (powerHouse Books, $35) a showcase of his celebrity houseguests.
“It’s the greatest invention ever made,” says Ratner, whose mother introduced him to photo booths when he was young. “It’s like fashion photography — there’s a direct flash, and it blows the lines out. Even people who are the most self-conscious aren’t when they are alone behind the curtain.”
In Ratner’s book, a ghost-white Michael Jackson sticks his tongue out. A bespectacled Britney Spears makes moose antlers with her fingers. Edward Norton and Salma Hayek, dressed in formal wear, share the booth and a kiss.
“There were a lot of middle fingers, a lot of people with their tongues out,” Ratner says. “There was also a lot of flashing, although I didn’t publish those.”
In Pilsen’s Skylark Bar, Just Joking Jerry — lawyer by day/performance artist by night — used the establishment’s photo booth to shoot pictures of himself with 100 different people. Naked. The rules: Both Jerry and his subject must disrobe, but the subject controlled the shoot and could do with the photos as he or she pleased.
He thought the project would take him a year.