Photo Booth Hire: The Strange Allure of Photo Booths – Part 2

It took five months. About 30 percent of his subjects, Jerry says, gave him part or all of their photos, which will remain in his private collection. He considered part of the performance art simply convincing people to participate.

“It’s a quasi-public space. It’s private in the sense that it’s a booth with a curtain,” Jerry explains. “The vast majority would never take off their clothes in public. On the other hand, doing it in the photo booth, they feel more comfortable doing that.”

Dee Taira, co-owner of the Skylark and owner of Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village, loves the booths she has in both locations. For the last 15 years, Taira has produced a one-sheet poster, a photo calendar of Rainbo regulars using pictures taken in the black-and-white photo booth tucked behind the bar. The calendars make a pictorial history of the neighborhood and her customers. She has seen her poster in Japan and all over Europe, Taira says.

“Everyone wants to be in the calendar,” she says. “You’ll see marriages and breakups and you’ll see people’s kids grow up.”

People find vintage photo booth shots not only allow a greater depth of field but capture four little moments in time, like a movie strip.

“You can create a little story,” says Vanessa Stalling, 28, a Rainbo Club regular and former calendar participant. “They usually make you look good. I don’t know what it is about the lighting, but it makes you look mysterious.”

At Photo-Me’s U.S. headquarters in Dallas, Gulley says, he’ll get a phone call from a panicked customer every once in a while.

“Are there any negatives? Who has copies of these photos?” they’ll ask.

“I always play with them a little bit,” Gulley says. He’ll let them dangle, then accuse them: “You showed your [chest], didn’t you?” Then he puts the caller’s mind at rest: No, there are no copies, no negatives. Photo booths use a direct positive process, imprinting the image directly to the paper — creating a one-of-a-kind artifact.

Siberian immigrant and itinerant photographer Anatol Josepho invented the photo booth in 1925 — “a coin-in-the-slot machine which would automatically develop the photographs, dry them and deliver them,” reported The New York Times in 1927.

At the time, eight photos cost 25 cents.

Developing streamlined

Improvements on Josepho’s Rube Goldberg-like developing process, most notably in 1946 by a California duo named Gupp Allen and I.D. Baker, made the developing more streamlined so the modern photo booth could be smaller.

But instant photos lost their novelty with the rise in popularity of the Polaroid camera and its instant film. Hard times for the local dime store, longtime photo booth havens and mainstream retail chains such as Kmart and Woolworths didn’t help.

“The rest is kind of downhill from there, the need for photo booths really diminished,” Gulley says. “When Woolworths went out of business, it hurt our business immensely.”

Innovation — especially digital printing — further threatens Photo-Me’s corner of the market. Rival company Foto Fantasy Inc., a division of Fantasy Entertainment, offers a half dozen models of photo vending machines. For $3, Fantasy’s booths print out sticker sheets of photos, a single 8-by-10 color image or pictures that look like charcoal sketches. But whereas Photo-Me uses the classic chemical developing process for its photo strips, pictures taken in Fantasy’s curtainless booths are more cutting edge, relying on inkjet and gel printers to produce images comparable to medium-pixel digital photos.

The 9-year-old company based in Hudson, N.H., has 124 machines in 76 Chicagoland locations, says spokeswoman Roberta Lemay. Fantasy owns booths in most of the area’s high-traffic tourist destinations, from Navy Pier to Sears Tower. Niles’ Golf Mill Shopping Center is a photo booth battleground. I spotted a half-dozen of Fantasy’s “foto” machines, and three Photo-Me booths. A few hours of reporter surveillance revealed about equal attention to both company’s products.

Gulley says Photo-Me has about 50 to 70 locations around Chicago, although he keeps a complete list of locations and exact number of booths a territorial secret. You can generally look to hipster hangouts such as Ukrainian Village’s Empty Bottle, Lincoln Park’s Local Option and the family-friendly Bunny Hutch Novelty Golf and Games in Lincolnwood to find Photo-Me booths.

Lemay calls Photo-Me “our only true competitor.” Last year, Fantasy introduced 500 Foto Fun Strips machines, which make four vertical photos, to compete directly with Photo-Me’s classic product.

“We got a lot of calls. People wanted four poses on one strip,” Lemay says. “It’s a twist on a classic — the historical premise of what a historical photo booth is like. It’s a great product. . . . It’s helping out the bottom line immensely.”

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