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Faces behind the curtain

Babbette Hines is on an endless search for photo-booth treasures that candidly record the human experience.

November 04, 2002|Renee Tawa

It's a cloudy Sunday morning, Babbette Hines' happy day.

Large cup of coffee in hand, in flat black shoes, Hines, a 35-year-old photography dealer, isn't looking for anything, really, at the Long Beach Outdoor Antique & Collectible Market, except the hint of a promise. Maybe she'll spot the black border of a small photograph at the bottom of a cigar box or the edge of a strip of snapshots in a cracked leather suitcase.

Then Hines will drop to her knees on the asphalt, fling off her glasses and lose herself in an endless search for photo-booth pictures, or, as she sees them, revealing portraits of the way people come off -- as class clowns, pensive poets, pretty boys -- when no one is looking. In her book, "photobooth," which was published last month by Princeton Architectural Press, Hines presents more than 700 such mini-portraits taken from the 1920s on that she culled mostly from swap meets and flea markets in Southern California.

Until recently, Hines has had little competition for the strips of photos. Then, in late 2001, the French film "Amelie" took off; the movie follows the romance between a dreamy young woman and a recluse who collects and reassembles torn-up snapshots from train station photo booths. And, in the last few years, photo-sticker booths have become popular with preteens and others who take away sheets of the adhesive-backed snapshots. Also, coming this month, the book "MTV Photobooth" (Universe) will include snapshot strips of more than 200 celebrities, including a dramatic Madonna and a mugging Ben Affleck, who ducked into a photo booth that was installed in the cable network's New York studio.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 589 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption -- A caption with a story about photo-booth pictures in Monday's Calendar incorrectly stated that collector Babbette Hines owns 27,000 such images. The correct number is 2,700.

With the resurging interest in such photos, Hines is competing with browsers on weekend shopping expeditions who ask dealers in shorthand: "Do you have photo booth?"

"Fifteen years ago," said Ray Hetrick, who sells at the Long Beach market and other local venues, "you probably couldn't have sold a photo-booth picture for a dime." These days, dealers are asking up to $5 for a single picture.

Hines, who works as a sales assistant at Arcana Books in Santa Monica, also collects and sells photographs of New York landscapes and other everyday scenes at a gallery in the Brewery artists complex in Los Angeles, where she lives with her boyfriend, filmmaker Carlos Grasso. None of her 2,700 photo-booth pictures are for sale. "They're my toys," she said, in her sweetly ironic and self-mocking way.

Hines began buying the pictures three years ago, for about 25 cents each, after running across a "funny, little, sweet" photo-booth picture of her mother as a young girl. The snapshot struck her as the same type that Hines had taken of herself, and with friends, on impulse, impatiently waiting for a machine to spit out a strip of pictures. "I just never imagined her in the same context as me," Hines said.

She hopes "photobooth" readers will see the thread between the 22-year-old private from the 1940s, who, according to a scribbled note on the back of the photograph, was killed in World War II; the circa-'90s portrait of two grinning young men in backward baseball caps; and the schoolgirl in a cardigan and Peter Pan collar with a shy smile and gap between her two front teeth.

Behind a curtain, without a photographer to think about, "You can be sexy or goofy or tough," Hines writes in the book's introduction. "In a photo booth, we choose the moment and the way in which we represent ourselves. We choose our truth."

The book simply presents the pictures, with no explanatory text other than a preface by acclaimed nonfiction writer Lawrence Weschler, who describes the "daft, gentle passion" of Hines, and an essay by Hines, who traces the evolution of the photo booth, which was developed in 1925 by a Siberian immigrant.

Hines leaves it to readers to fill in the blanks on the stories behind the photos; the ambiguity only heightens the intrigue. "It's a book of pictures, but, most importantly, it's a book of stories," she said. "The picture is always the first line of the story."

One weekend, at the Long Beach flea market, she bought 70 photo-booth pictures -- of the same person. The pictures were taken in the 1970s or so of a girl, starting at about age 8 through 16. Such discards of personal history touch Hines in the same way that something as odd as a three-legged table does. "I'm the taker home of the sad, unloved object," admits Hines, who claps her hands with delight when she stumbles on any such ignored offering.

On this morning, Hines spots a nondescript cardboard box on a nondescript folding table and heads for it. "See, look," she says. "Photo booth [possibilities] at 100 yards." She lifts a plastic bag from the box and flops down on a blue tarp, next to a beat-up Raggedy Ann doll.

In seconds, she picks out a series of photo-booth portraits from, perhaps, the early 1930s. The pictures show two women who appear to be in their early 20s and are wearing knit bonnets. One woman is pretty and flashes an easy grin; the other has a round, serious face.

"She was way more chipper," began Hines, pointing out the smiling woman and letting her imagination run with a narrative. "She was the dowdy one, waiting for the boys to notice her...."

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