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The last photo booth

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Tim Garrett and Anthony Vizzari position a photobooth (Brian Meacham)

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(Brian Meacham)

Brian Meacham has set himself a task: To document every remaining photo booth in the world. But his list won’t include the newfangled digital photo booths that allow the sitter to choose the best shots. Too many options, Meacham thinks, is not always a good thing.

The old photo booths were both dynamic and restrictive. The subject escaped the party/wedding/bar, ducked into the plywood and steel box, whooshed the curtain closed, then, sudden solitude, four flashes, and then the great wait. At the end of the process, the 1,000-pound, now 80-year-old relic spit out a tiny paper. This is you, it said, in four constrained frames, at this moment of time.

“There’s no preview. There’s no negative. There’s no ‘hey check it out, see if you like it.’ There’s no delete,” said Meacham, 34, a film archivist in Los Angeles.

That spontaneity is why Meacham not only wants to document photo booths, but to save them. He is part of a movement of photo booth and Polaroid loyalists who cherish an antiquated “instant” medium that used real photographic paper.

“There’s still an element of the real,” Meacham said. “Grains of silver nitrate on polyester: That has a power that you don’t get in digital.”

According to photobooth.net, there are only about 230 chemical photo booths left in America, but the count fluctuates as additional booths are discovered. The heyday of photo booths, when every Woolworth’s store had one, has long since passed, and the booths that are left may be doomed.

Kodak and the French company Agfa have stopped making chemical paper for photo booths and their cousin, the Polaroid camera, as well. Without the paper especially designed for instant developing, the booths will be obsolete.

Polaroid enthusiasts are further along than their photo booth friends in the process of saving their machines. A group of technicians, engineers and artists who worked with Polaroid cameras have created two Web sites, Savepolaroid.com and The-impossible-project.com, and have leased an old chemical paper factory in the Netherlands with the goal of restarting operations next year. They’re seeking financial support through their sites.

Photo booth mavens held a convention in Chicago in early April to figure out a plan to save the booths.

“It’s mostly artists and enthusiasts and I’m sure Chicago-brand hipsters who are coming to use the booth and what-not,” said Tim Garrett, a computer programmer and owner of a photo booth rental company, who organized the convention with Meacham. During the convention, Garrett said, they “came up with some strategies for soldiering on should the paper and chemistry supply evaporate.”

Meacham and Garrett realized a common interest four years ago when, during a teaching assistantship at the Harvard Film Archives, Meacham began documenting the photo booths he found in America and putting their particulars up on the Web. Garrett already owned photobooth.net, and so they developed the site into the leading Internet resource on photo booths.

One of the few sources left for instant photo paper is Auto-Foto Canada, which George Grostern inherited from his father 34 years ago. The company specializes in supplying digital photo booths to shopping malls and maintaining the remaining chemical photo booths in the United States and Canada.

“I am sad about the changes,” Grostern said. “In the long run, if we’re around 10 years from now, we’ll strictly be digital.”

Auto-Foto’s hold on the market means that when images of photo booths appear on American television, they are usually Grostern’s. Over the phone from his company headquarters in Montreal, he was excited to describe watching a favorite show of his: “CSI: NY,” and seeing two victims leave the subway and go straight into one of his booths.

Having a hold on the market isn’t very difficult. Grostern knew that Agfa, the last company to produce photo booth paper, was going to stop producing it in 2003, so he purchased a large supply. He gives his stock of color paper another five years to run out, and his black-and-white only three.

Meacham doesn’t come to photo booths with the family background Grostern has, but he is sentimental about the bygone world the booths have recorded. For him the mission to preserve is more about art and nostalgia than business.

“There’s this sense of witnessing people having fun and it’s somehow—it’s wonderful but it tears you up inside at the same time,” he said. “It just breaks my heart to see these things, that these people existed and don’t anymore, and just these moments that they captured” He added, “Maybe these guys were going to war,” or maybe they were young couples who “never got together.”

Technology has reached the point where we can manipulate “spontaneous” images of ourselves, deleting and even altering frames until we’re left with an image we like. But to enthusiasts like Garrett, the magic of instant photos comes from the lack of control. Whatever you were doing for that instant in the photo booth is what will be left.

“It sort of touches across all of these generations in an untouched way,” he said.

E-mail: aas2176@columbia.edu