Camera obscurer: Meet the enthusiasts that are determined to keep photo booths alive

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Remember when photo booths were fun places to pull a face, sit on laps and make memories, rather than just take passport shots?

Perhaps you did it in the back of Woolworths. Or maybe in a corner of the Post Office, the shopping centre, or in the ticket hall of your local train station. Wherever the location, there was always a sense of excitement as you stepped behind that stiff, synthetic curtain, adjusted the height of the heavy stool and fed the slot with coins. Then, four flashes – followed by an impatient wait for the prize: a sticky little strip of photographs, each one different.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, we took the photo booth – in its analogue, old-school form – for granted. And, though they were widely used for passport pictures, there was something special about the just-for-fun souvenirs that took their time to drop out of the booth's little slot, still wet and reeking of developing chemicals: a memento of that bad 1980s perm; an intense teenage friendship; kohl-eyed punk rebellion; your parents, young, giggly and wearing big hair.

But the history of the booth stretches back further than the 1960s. The invention of the "Photomaton" in 1925 is credited to Anatol Josepho, a Siberian immigrant living in New York – though his machine needed to be manned. The first self-service, automatic booth came about in 1946 in California, created by the American firm Auto Photo, which went on to set up a UK subsidiary in the ' 1950s; this became Photo-Me International, which has operated machines here since 1962. The booth has been prolific in popular culture ever since: from art, most famously seen in Andy Warhol's self-portraits; to film – most prominently in 2001's Amélie (though dating back to 1928's Lonesome, in which romance blooms in a Coney Island booth); TV: in everything from Men Behaving Badly to Glee; and music: psychedelic hipsters MGMT recently featured one in a video, building on a trend begun by Depeche Mode in 1982. What's more, Jack White, Quentin Tarantino and Paris Hilton all reportedly own one.

Yet, with instant photography at our fingertips in the form of digital cameras and mobile phones, the demand for booths for fun has diminished. To counter this, Photo-Me, which no longer operates analogue booths at all, is busy creating spin-offs purely for entertainment, with options including the X Factor Booth – your karaoke efforts captured as a digital movie – and the Van Gogh Fun Booth, where caricatures, portraits and stickers are dispensed in various artistic styles.

However, enthusiasts argue, digital booths just don't have the same appeal. Tim Garrett, who, with his friend Brian Meacham, co-founded the appreciation site Photobooth.net in the US, believes that "Digital 'enhancing' of the experience with cheesy voiceovers and graphics has taken away from the beautiful simplicity of the vintage booths." The charm of the old-school booths, he continues, is "a special sauce of ingredients: the tiny precious images, beautifully lit and exposed; the instant gratification; the cramped space of the seating area that inspires intimate photos; the anticipation as you wait for the strip to pop out, unsure exactly how they will look; the pungent smell of the chemicals and the low whirr of the machine..."

Garrett bought his first booth in 2002 after failing to find someone who'd hire him one for his wedding, and now owns "a fleet", vintage and home-made. All much easier in the States, where due to space and attitudes – according to many in the community, the booth was always more overtly for fun in the US – there are more of the old booths about.

But before you feel too sad about the machines' demise over here, perhaps we're not losing the spirit of the retro booth after all. The community of enthusiasts buzzing around Garrett and Meacham's website is growing, accompanied by a resurgence in activity. In Germany, the Photoautomat company restores vintage chemical booths and installs them in public locations – there are 10 in Berlin.

Over here, Steve "Mixup" Howard, a Nottingham-based photo-booth artist since the 1970s, runs the International Photobooth Convention, with Garrett and Meacham. What began as a forum for other booth artists now draws guests from all over the world to share techniques, tips, history – and screenings of Amélie. And Howard isn't anti-digital: "In essence it's still a booth," he says. "You're still on your own in the same sort of space and you can create different effects that wouldn't work so well with the old machines."

In addition, on the heels of a US trend, British companies now rent out new and vintage booths for special events – Nigella Lawson and Agyness Deyn are among recent celebrity hirers – while a new breed of individual enthusiasts is growing: procuring original machines and doing creative things with them, or building their own versions from scratch – some of whom give their stories over the following pages...

Photobooth.net has just launched an iPhone app to 'recreate the experience of sitting in a vintage booth'. To download it, go to the iTunes store and search for Pocket Booth. For details of Steve Howard's international convention, visit mixup.org.uk

Alex Kokott, a London-based chef, manages a restored vintage chemical booth for Photoautomat, a company run by his friends in Germany. The booth, currently at Cargo, a nightclub in London's Shoreditch, has been used to photograph the designer Henry Holland and for a project by the acclaimed artist Fiona Banner. It was also part of a recent Rankin exhibition

"Because it's in a club, I sometimes get calls in the middle of the night from people demanding: 'Where's my picture?'" says Kokott. "It only takes five minutes, but people are so unused to waiting that when pictures don't come out straight away, they assume the machine must be broken.

"To me, digital takes away some of the magic. The quality of a chemical picture is totally different – I also prefer it when things get done slowly. The wait is part of the process. It's like when you're hungry and waiting for a meal; sometimes the anticipation is better than the food. That is something we've lost, because we're so used to having things instantly.

"Our booth came over about a year-and-a-half ago. The Photoautomat guys are artists interested in photography, which is why they started the business restoring, installing and running booths five or six years ago. They were always asking me to bring one to London; the first few months I ran one were exciting: that's when things kept going wrong, and I had to find out why. I do all the maintenance myself and although I've got a manual, you still have to teach yourself. It was a really fun period; like when you're a little boy and you deconstruct your record player, then put it all back together again. It's almost a shame now that it works so well.

"In Germany they're all on the street, very accessible, but in London there's less space and I couldn't get permission from the councils, which is how it came to be in Cargo. I'd love to get one in the Tate – it's a business but also a community art project. Once people step into the booth they always change a bit; they get a bit silly, creative. Then, you step out and become your normal self again. It's giving people that moment."

photoautomat.wordpress.com

Lee Stewart, a furniture designer, and Thomas Mattey, a photographer, both from London, own and built The Mighty Booth, a lavishly furnished flatpack digital photo booth. It has appeared at events including Glastonbury, the Notting Hill Carnival and the Port Eliot literary festival

"It was in a quiet pub last Christmas that I came up with the idea of building a booth," says Stewart. "For a while I'd been wondering how to make a living from doing something a bit different. I'd been toying with the idea of creating some sort of vending machine. In the pub I got into conversation with a Buddhist guy. 'What's in your food cupboard?' he asked me. It was an analogy – he was talking about doing what you're good at, which for me is designing and making things. I also love fancy dress. That, combined with watching old screenings of Sherlock Holmes on TV, somehow turned into the idea of building our first booth which, aesthetically, has some Sherlock influences, and comes with a dressing-up box.

"Tom came along in the early stages of the design, and we built and ran the booth together. Having lived in Berlin, I'd seen the Photoautomat booths and wanted to recreate that retro look on the outside with Formica – then have a juxtaposition on the inside with period wood panelling, antlers on the wall, French 1920s pleated lampshades, brass fittings, a porthole, an oak floor, a rug, some cushions and an antique leather armchair. It's all about the moment when you pull the curtain back, as it's not what you're expecting.

"Initially we looked into buying a classic booth and restoring it, but there are very few around and they're hard to maintain. Besides, we wanted something mobile: ours is up in two or three hours, and you can take it anywhere.

"I understand that purists might not like the fact that ours is digital but it's reliable, there's no drying time and we have master copies in case people lose their strips while partying.

"When we first used it – at Glastonbury – we couldn't believe how much laughter was coming from inside. You get six or seven seconds to change position, outfit or expression and that's the fun of it: people blink, or someone with too big a hat blocks everyone out. It's 15 to 20 seconds of brilliant chaos.

"Fancy dress was always part of the plan; when you shut that curtain, you go into your own little world for 20 seconds; we've had Jarvis Cocker in it wearing a snorkel mask.

"In five years' time, I hope to have 10 booths on the go; we want our next to have enough space for people to dance in."

themightybooth.com

Carole Evans, a photographer from London, and Siobhan Mackay, a legal secretary from Nottingham, are behind Photomovette, a company built around an old analogue booth the pair bought from Estonia. Theirs is one of only two old-fashioned chemical booths in the UK

"It all started a couple of summers ago in Berlin, where they have working, old photo booths on the streets," says Evans. "I've always loved everything to do with old photography – Polaroids, old analogue cameras – so when I saw all these old machines still working, I fell in love with the concept.

"There's something magical about the chemical booths. The strip is the only thing that exists of that moment in time – there's no negative, it can't be downloaded, there's no record of it on some hard drive somewhere, it can't be reproduced; it's unique. That's really seductive and charming.

"So when I came back to London I tried to find out if there were any old chemical booths operating in the UK and discovered that not one remained. That's when I discovered Photobooth.net and asked on its forum whether anyone knew of any in the UK. I'd forgotten all about it when I got an email, months later, from this guy in Moscow saying he'd just bought five booths in Estonia and asked if I wanted to buy one. It seemed nuts but I happened to be seeing Siobhan in the pub that evening, who has a great collection of old photo-booth strips from her childhood, so I mentioned it. 'Why don't we go halves and buy it?' she said. It seemed a ridiculous idea, but we decided to look into it and, after lots of conversations with the seller, we parted with €1,200 and the booth was ours. But before we could get it – very expensively – shipped over here, we had to work out where it would live: these machines weigh half a tonne and are two metres high; you can't just put one in your living-room. Finally, we found a cheap ground-floor studio in Deptford, which is where it now lives. Then we had to get it working – not so easy when the chemicals aren't available here and Customs won't let you ship them over. So we enlisted the help of our old photography tutor, and improvised – the result is that our photos are a bit sepia-tinged, but we quite like that.

"Our plan now is to put it in a public space; we're on the lookout for an interested bar or gallery. We've also started an online community via our website and Flickr, where people can upload copies of their own photo-booth strips. We want to share the love, for others to experience how great it is."

photomovette.co.uk

Tim Hunkin is an engineer and cartoonist who built and owns the Expressive Booth, part of the Under the Pier Show amusement arcade near his home in Southwold, Suffolk

"The point of the Expressive Booth is that it provokes different expressions on the faces of the people using it. So it'll do things like open a creaking trap door above your head to make you look up just as the picture is taken, or blow a gust of wind across you so your hair blows about. One of the settings makes the seat wobble, another makes the seat drop suddenly, so you get a look of shock.

"The Under the Pier Show started when I began converting arcade machines that had gone wrong into more eccentric things. The guy who owns the place thought a booth would be a good addition – but it had to be odd or unusual.

"As well as the booth, I've converted a Space Harrier into this thing called Microbreak – it's, well, not exactly a magic carpet but that sort of idea: you sit in an armchair watching an old telly, and get a complete package holiday in three minutes: flight, coach journey, then a sun lamp sweeps up and you get a 30-second suntan. Another machine is called the Bathyscape: it's a bath suspended from the ceiling – the whole family can get inside and it pretends to take you under the water.

"I'm not really part of the photo-booth community, and though I love the old machines, I'm thankful I haven't got one – getting all those chemicals right would be a real pain.

"About 6,000 people a year use my booth, and one of the things that helps to make it popular is that when the seat drops, people very often scream – and from the outside you can't see why, which is good for getting the next person in. People love to pore over their pictures when they come out. When you're on a pier, you're up for having a laugh and messing about – and that's what the booth is all about."

underthepier.com

Don't say cheese: The art of the strip show

Andy Warhol isn't the only artist to have used photo booths in his work...

Liz Rideal

The British artist has been using photo booths in her art for more than two decades. She has a series of booth self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, and her series of giant booth images, called "Kerfuffle", was commissioned to adorn Broadcasting House during its 2004 refurbishment. lizrideal.com

Steve Howard

The founder of the International Photobooth Convention has been creating art from photo booths since the 1970s and specialises in using masks. "When I started to use photo booths," he says, "I asked myself: what can you do in a photo booth? I never ran out of ideas..." mixup.org.uk

Herman Costa

An American artist whose photo-booth pieces have been published in Interview and New York Magazine, Costa has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and also co-designs photo-booth jewellery. photobooth.net/ art/index.php?artistID=1

Tim Garrett

The co-founder of Photobooth.net was inspired to set up the site by his work using the booth in art production and went on to develop an iPhone app partly so he could "more easily make art with the same format and constraints". photoboothart.com

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