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Comeback of photo booths exposes yearning for what's real

Cellphone photos are disposable and forgettable. In a photo booth, you plunk your money in and the result is frozen on film and in time. Hipster bars lead the way.

August 03, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Bess Byers, left, and Melissa Dominguez photograph themselves in a photo booth at the One-Eyed Gypsy bar in downtown Los Angeles.
Bess Byers, left, and Melissa Dominguez photograph themselves in a photo… (Gale Holland / Los Angeles…)

I was taking photos at a music after-party in Pomona when a guy went off on me for stealing his friend's image.

I might have been forgiven for thinking the friend would appreciate the attention. He was standing in the back room of Aladdin Jr.'s cafe with an open umbrella over his head. But no matter; I explained I was a journalist.

His buddy was having none of it.

"You're just another girl with a Tumblr account and a camera phone," he sneered.

I was shocked. And not only that he would think someone my age would stay up that late if I didn't have to. Had the generation that documents each new cocktail and dessert tray on Facebook finally realized it was over-exposed?

Umm, no. Rest assured, we are all still our own celebrities, recording every move for our 2,568 friends. Which is why it's strange that something so old-school and hokey as the vintage photo booth is making a comeback.

In a handful of hipster bars — Cha Cha Lounge, Edendale Grill — people are lining up to cram into photo closets, pull the curtain closed and wait for the flash to pop and freeze their goofy expressions. Corporations, sensing the next big thing, are even renting photo booths for promotional purposes.

Back in the day, photo booths made sense. We had to wait days for the drugstore to develop our film. Three minutes after we fed three bucks in the slot, the film strip, damp with developing chemicals, slid down the metal chute, and we were grabbing it away from each other to see how we looked.

But now? There's a cellphone camera in every pocket. Digital photos appear instantly. And with a few extra taps, we can beam them to our friends and relations almost as quickly.

So what's behind the photo booth revival? At heart, I think it is a longing for authenticity. When we don't like a cellphone photo, we hit delete and do it over. Photo booth photos are of the moment. Once the money is plunked into the little metal slot, we have to live with the consequences.

"I'm so over digital," said Bess Byers, a Venice marketing researcher darting out of the One-Eyed Gypsy's vintage booth. "With film you only have one shot and that's that. You have to make it count."

In the digital world, "you could take a picture of a cockroach and make it look like Godzilla," Orange County resident Fernando Lazaro, an office worker, said, explaining why he and a friend ducked into the photo booth one night last week at the One-Eyed Gypsy bar downtown. But in the photo booth world, "this is real."

Photo booth photos fulfill my yearning for a lost physicality. The march of technology has wiped out so many things we used to hold in our hands and savor. Clicking through photos in front of a screen is an evanescent thrill that can't compare to leafing through a photo album, or spotting a childhood shot of a friend spilling out of a cardboard box.

Digital technology gave us photography without limits. But suddenly, we're seeing the virtue of limits. Photo booth photos are on a human scale. They take place in real time in a private space we chose to occupy.

And everyone in a photo booth picture is your real friend. Silver Lake filmmaker Angel Lopez said he sees pictures of friends on the Tumblr accounts of people they don't even know. By contrast, Lopez still has photo booth pictures he took with each guest at his birthday party six years ago.

To get back to my nemesis at the after-party, digital images have a way of spiraling out of our control. Once our friends Like it, Digg it, Share it and Tag it, our online picture flies out into the universe and an uncertain, unlimited after-life. I'm not just talking about that embarrassing shot of beer pong inebriation.

Lopez posed this hypothetical: You put a picture online, and your friends and relations repost it. Somebody working on a "10 Best ...." list runs a Google search and finds it on a blog or online scrapbook. Presto, you're No. 6 on the "Cute Guys with Beards" site.

This is not to say digital photography is losing its charm. On the contrary, the photo booth concept has gone meta. My colleague Jessica Gelt recently reported on the newly renovated downtown lounge Elevate's pseudo-photo booth, "iSnap," which sends photos straight to Facebook or Twitter — just like a cellphone camera!

But they can't claim the unvarnished authenticity of the print photos. In fact, photo booth photos are so great we just have to share them on Facebook. "I'll probably take a photo of myself with the film photos with my cell and then post it online," so-over-digital Bess Byers said.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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