In a new book and exhibit, Vermont photographer Näkki Goranin frames the history of the photobooth
When Polaroid announced last week the demise of its fabled instant camera, the nostalgia began, well, instantly. So did the stockpiling of self-developing film. It was a coincidence that in the same week, a new book documenting the rise and fall of another late, great photographic phenomenon was published: American Photobooth by Burlington photographer Näkki Goranin. The 224-page volume is extensively researched and amply illustrated with hundreds of images from Goranin’s vast personal collection. And, remarkably, it is the first history of the once wildly popular and ubiquitous automatic picture-taking machine. “Prior to my doing this, there was nothing about photobooths,” she declares. “I just wanted these people to get their due.”
By “these people,” Goranin refers to photobooth inventor Anatol Josepho, an immigrant to New York from Siberia, as well as other “photomaton” manufacturers, vendors, promoters and competitors throughout the machine’s decades-long heyday. But she refers as well to the millions of eager, anonymous users who flocked to photobooths for formal, or frivolous, portraits. “At the height of the Depression,” Goranin writes, “people could still find a dime or a quarter to take what, for some, was probably the only photograph they could afford.”
The old-style photobooth survived well into the 20th century, gradually disappearing to dumps and landfills; by the time individuals began snapping themselves with cellphones, the device had become digital, too. Photobooths still exist — there are two in Burlington Town Center (see sidebar) — and can even be rented for occasions such as weddings. But the romance, like Josepho’s ingenious chemistry, is history.
And that history turns out to be quite fascinating, delivered by Goranin with the sense of wonderment she maintains in person. Other books have featured the familiar, four-shot vertical strips of the photobooth but failed to tell their story, says David Haberstich, the associate curator of photography archives at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. In his engaging introduction to American Photobooth, Haberstich writes that Goranin “has uncovered the technological and commercial history of the automatic photobooth as well as the social context in which it was developed.”
As for the diminutive self-portraits themselves, they are “testimonies to the human condition,” he muses. And indeed, the faces appearing in this book convey an emotional spectrum, from hauntingly sad to exuberantly joyful. “Some of the grimmest are the most memorable, the most strangely beautiful,” Haberstich offers. On the other hand, the photobooth “helped many customers find and capture their inner comedians.”
It hardly needs proving that the human face is universally appealing. But while dozens of contemporary magazines would suggest we’re only interested in the celebrity visage, American Photobooth proves, instead, that utterly anonymous ones can be absolutely riveting.
Besides, almost everyone of a certain age has done it — posed inside the intimate, curtained cubicle, alone or accompanied by friends or sweethearts. Most often, the photobooth has been party to innocent fun — and who’s not nostalgic about that? Both the voyeurism and the personal memories help to explain why Goranin’s achievement has struck a chord with so many.
Back in December, The New Yorker published an essay by John Updike, entitled “Visual Trophies,” in which he waxes on the “art of snapshots.” Though his mention of Goranin’s book is brief (after all, it was still “forthcoming”), the magazine borrowed liberally of images in it — including a photobooth shot of the young newlyweds John and Jacquelyn Kennedy. People magazine gave American Photobooth a thumbs-up earlier this month; the trade mag Vending Times raved and, perhaps more significantly, so did Booklist — that library journal called it “spellbinding.” The New York Times interviewed Goranin for a late February feature focusing on how the book “touches on New York City,” accompanied by a video blog on the paper’s website. A February 8 talk with Goranin on Vermont Public Radio can still be heard at http://www.vpr.net (click here to listen.)
In April, she’ll be delivering a colloquium on photobooths at the Smithsonian. But the biggest thrill — “a dream beyond anything,” Goranin gushes — is an exhibit in May at the International Center of Photography in New York. It will feature photobooth images from her collection as well as some of her personal work.
Much closer to home, Vermonters can gaze upon enlarged prints from the book in a show at Pine Street Art Works in Burlington, through March. Titled “Näkki Goranin’s American Photobooth,” the exhibit also features prints of photos that are not in the book (see audio slideshow). The original manuscript she presented to W.W. Norton was 500 pages, she reveals with a grimace. “The editing was brutal.” But Goranin credits veteran editor Jim Mairs for the streamlining: “Working with someone of that caliber was an education,” she says. “I’ve learned how to refine what I do.” Besides, with some of those leftover photobooth strips, she’s thinking sequel books, with different themes.
“It’s a miracle, all this attention,” Goranin continues, shaking her waist-length black hair for emphasis. “You spend so many years working at something — not for the acclaim but because you can’t do anything else — but it’s wonderful to be finally rewarded.”
Näkki Goranin’s earliest photobooth experiences were in her native Chicago in the 1960s, beginning around age 8. But one visit stands out in her mind. She and a girlfriend, by then seventh-graders, had gone to the busy downtown Woolworth’s, which could be “an all-day experience,” she recalls. The booth was at the front of the store. “We did some pictures together and, this being Chicago, while we were in there someone stole her purse.”
That misfortune aside, Goranin became enamored of the machine. “It was a way of bonding, if you took a picture with your best friend,” she says. Now, looking back at the photobooth’s history, she suggests the device was appealing in part because there was no photographer. The customers “have total control; there’s not a person looking at them and judging them,” Goranin surmises. “There’s an intimacy — as if you’re in your bedroom. People are most themselves.”
She didn’t yet know that she’d become a photographer herself. Goranin went to college at Indiana University in Bloom-ington, and then stayed to
earn a Master’s in Fine Arts Photography, Anthropology and Education. She moved to Vermont in the early ’80s — on the way to a Maine photo workshop, she’d gotten off the bus in Burlington and fell in love. “I knew this was where I wanted to be,” she says, though in retrospect she notes that making a living as an artist in Vermont has been “very, very hard.”
Over the years, Goranin has taught at several colleges, received grants for photo projects — some involving, not surprisingly, Vermont history — and been an artist-in-residence through the Vermont Arts Council. A permanent exhibition of her work resides at the Vermont Department of Health building in Burlington. For several years she battled a debilitating medical condition; after her own recovery, she spent four years caring for her mother, who died of cancer in 1999. An only child who had been “very tight” with her mom, Goranin found herself unable to go in the darkroom for a while. “I was a wreck,” she says. “Somehow, sitting in the photobooth was easier.” A few of her resulting self-portraits appear in the book.
Throughout her adulthood, Goranin has continued to collect historic photographs, including photobooth strips. Her images, found at garage and estate sales and flea markets, number in the thousands. She also acquired three vintage machines, now in disrepair. (“I’m looking for a studio space,” she announces, “so I can spread them out and fix them.”) The idea for a book began to percolate because, Goranin says, “I have all these photography books, and not a one of them mentions the photobooth.”
David Haberstich at the Smithsonian corroborates this academic neglect. Few photostrips exist among the “two or three million” images in his care at the massive Washington, D.C., facility, he says in a phone interview, though an exhibition that ended 10 years ago “touched on the history of the photobooth” and temporarily maintained one for visitors. “It was a chore to operate,” he recalls.
Haberstich, who’s been at the Smithsonian “many decades,” knows an obsessive archivist when he sees one. He was impressed when Goranin brought some of her collection, and her book idea, to him for feedback. “I got very excited when Näkki started telling me about it,” he says. “It was clear it was a subject whose time had come.”
And the subject took considerable time to come; Goranin spent seven years researching photobooths, tracking down arcane sources and “putting thousands of miles on my car.”
The trajectory of the charismatic, globe-traveling inventor Anatol Josepho was just the beginning of the story. Once the photobooth caught the public’s attention in the early 20th century, it became an American — and then worldwide — capitalist success story, replete with wily competitors, lucrative patent purchases and savvy successors. Gangsters and rodeo stars even figure in Goranin’s tale. So do reverent paeans to Josepho’s groundbreaking chemical process, which enabled a positive image to be printed directly on pretreated paper. If the photographer-free machine was dismissed by art historians, the science was much admired, and copied.
Goranin eventually sought the advice of Steve Stinehour, formerly of the Stinehour Press in Lunenburg, Vermont, and now owner of Stinehour Wemyss Editions in South Lunenburg. His company publishes books and ink-jet prints, for museums and individuals, in the fields of architecture, fine art, design and photography. “I’ve been in the business for over 30 years,” Stinehour says. “When I saw Näkki’s collection I immediately knew which publisher I should show the work to — one of the grand old men of publishing, Jim Mairs [at Norton]. He took an immediate liking to it.”
Stinehour Wemyss ended up scanning all the original images that appear in American Photobooth. Steve Stinehour is optimistic the book will do well, “because it is appealing to many different people from different directions. We all have our own memories with photobooths.”
Winooski photographer Dan Higgins has devotedly photographed residents of the Onion City as well as those in Burlington’s “sister,” Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. “Photography in different eras has been a major way for people to document their hopes and dreams,” he suggests. “The professional photography studio was where they would go to record.” Though the booth wasn’t quite the same, he continues, “people would make pilgrimages to the photobooth — there was a formality to it: You were making a photograph; there wasn’t someone taking your picture.”
At Pine Street Art Works, gallerist Liza Cowan — also a photographer — emphasizes the point that the photobooth emulated classic portraiture. “I’m very taken with the formal properties of the images, the way the inventor set them up,” she says. “It’s a formal, shoulders-up portrait geometry, with a plain background.”
Goranin’s book and exhibit are “in line with what I’m trying to do in the gallery,” Cowan continues, “treading the line between folk art and fine art.” Though photobooth images are not fine art, they are “just as collectible, just as valuable,” she asserts. And although they’ve been ignored in highbrow art history, “everybody loves them.”
Goranin is still transfixed by the faces she’s found, and in American Photobooth as well as her Burlington exhibit, it’s easy to see why. For one thing, the diversity is remarkable — kids, teens and adults of multiple races and economic status. In some, clothing hints at occupations: a short-order cook, a farmer, a cowboy. There are happy honeymooners, frolicking vacationers and possibly tipsy college students. Graduates in caps and gowns; people holding pets. World War II-era soldiers in uniform.
There are lots of guys, in fact, with heads necessarily close. “Men just don’t do that, when there’s more space around them,” Goranin notes. “In the photomaton, you have to squeeze together.” She likes, too, that “the women were not anorexic sticks. They’re real women loved by other people.”
Many of the photos, to be sure, reveal adoration, affection, flirtation. But there is poignancy here, too, and even sorrow. Most of all, there is mystery: You can’t help but wonder about the lives behind these intimate snapshots; about the moments in which ordinary people posed for posterity — and for each other — in four quick frames.