Meags Fitzgerald’s hand-illustrated nonfiction graphic novel Photobooth: A Biography recounts the author’s personal obsession with photobooths, from her adolescent rituals of regularly visiting local photobooths in Edmonton with friends, to her pilgrimages to visit specific chemical photobooths before they go extinct, to her international travel to photobooth conventions and her entry into a global network of photobooth artists, enthusiasts, and revivalists. With each step Fitzgerald’s curiosity expands and so does the scope of her project. She learns how to service a photobooth; she becomes an artist in residence at a photobooth sales and rental company in Chicago; in her research she finds new friendships as her personal life and her pursuit of knowledge about photobooths become completely intertwined.
Winding through the book like a helix around Fitzgerald’s own story is a history of photobooths. Fitzgerald describes a series of photographic machines that allowed people with no training to make pictures of themselves, leading up to Anatol Josephewitz’s 1925 Photomaton. The Photomaton, which would come to dominate the industry, would take 8 pictures on a strip for 25 cents; people lined up down Broadway to use it. Josephewitz’s story is extraordinary: he left Siberia at fifteen for Berlin, travelling to New York and back to Europe and eventually fleeing revolutionary Russia through China to arrive in San Francisco and then back to New York. Through it all he developed prototypes and plans for an “automatic photo-making machine.”
These stories are told through illustration and prose, which feels surprisingly appropriate in this book that is at least partly about photography. There’s a wonderfully uncanny feeling in reading a history and memoir in which photographs abound, but where, in the presentation, they have all been construed by hand, producing images that are neither automated nor indexical. Fitzgerald’s illustrations, mostly ink but some pencil, deftly deploy a range of expressive styles. As her narrative shifts between personal history and the history of photobooths, so do the energy, rhythm, and layouts of her illustrations change. The chapters shift back and forth between her own story and Josephewitz’s, which she visually reconstructs through research and references, punctuated by full-page portraits of photobooths, and embellished with brief vignettes about the many artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, technicians, and inventors who she meets, as well as her friends and family.
She interviews, for example, photohistorian Clément Chéroux, one of the curators of Derrière le Rideau, an exhibition of photobooth art produced by the Musée de l’Élysée that Fitzgerald sees in Brussels (“For me the photobooth is a kind of sculpture, a monument, a temple to photography.”) She is contacted by a man who she mentions in a CBC radio documentary, whose picture appears on countless Canadian photobooths. His name is Brian, though until they met she thought of him as Desmond. His mother was a receptionist at Auto-Photo and so he became a regular model, photographed hundreds of times each summer, for years, his pictures stuck to the posters on the booths. In Vermont she interviews Nakki Goranin, author of American Photobooth, “likely the worlds’ most knowledgeable person on the subject of photobooth history.”
The many illustrations of photostrips in Photobooth: A Biography emerge as one of Fitzgerald’s most striking and effective devices. Fitzgerald loves that the photobooth strips are singular objects, like a tintype or a print, the negative of which has been destroyed, and so her drawings are of photographs as individual objects. These drawings are more her interpretations of the photostrips’ character as objects and less a transcription of an image. She always pays attention to the borders of the photostrips, where the lines go a little skewed, or the frame has tiny rounded corners: the image is just a part of the thing itself. She wants us to understand that the value in these cheap strips comes from an appreciation of how each came to be, and not in its form alone.
Chemical photobooths have largely been supplanted by digital booths that are easier to maintain and that do not require toxic processing chemicals. But the nature of digital technology’s reproducibility has shifted both the experience of having a picture made in a photobooth and what the photographs themselves can mean. Chemical photobooths provide a richness of the image, a fullness and depths in its tones, that digital booth images, for all of their selectable backgrounds, overlays and flourishes, do not. There is the value that accumulates around the photograph as a unique object rather than a file that can in some cases be reprinted on demand; the strip, perhaps cut and shared between participants of the photo marks a shared moment. And, perhaps most importantly, there is the lack of a retake. In contrast to the multiple-take selfie in which a photographer perfects their self-presentation, the photobooth is a one-shot. Like a fortune teller or a conversation, you ask the booth a question and it responds. You can’t tweak the answer to your satisfaction; you get what you get until you come back the next time.