Behind the curtain

Behind the curtain, an instant classic
By Alan Berner

Fifth in an occasional series

They mug, they smooch, they frown and they cavort inside it.

They act out and produce just about anything except that “American Gothic” look.

In the squeezed, semiprivate space of the photo booth, the only landscape is the face.

Three minutes later, the reward pops out. It’s a 7 ¾-inch-long strip of four images from the machine, considered the first invention to offer instant photography.

Russian immigrant Anatol Josepho, known for his impatience, developed the photo booth in 1925, two decades before the Polaroid. Soon, block-long lines formed near New York’s Times Square, with people eager to drop a quarter in the machine and have a strip of images emerge a couple of minutes later.

The booths used to populate the corners of five-and-dimes, groceries, bars and fairs but now are hard to find.

Seattle Art Museum has one that’s part of its current Andy Warhol exhibit. Warhol considered the images to be small works of art from “little curtained theaters.”

Budd Mishkin, from South Orange, N.J., recently swiped his credit card at the SAM booth. (It no longer accepts cash.) But he failed to get seated alongside his wife, Peri Smilow, in time for the first flash.

“Great. You and my arm. It’s very Warholesque.”

The photo booth will be at SAM through Sept. 6, and by then about 7,000 will have exposed their personalities and left a frame on the exhibit wall.

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