Sell Me Myself -- Photo Booths in 2001

by David Cox

New Devices for recording one's own image have cropped up in the city in the last few years. We are all familiar with the "photo-me booths" - those rather boxy tiny rooms with a curtain into which you place coins and a strip of photos is produced.

"Photo-me" booths date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s and were popularised by such films as La Dolce Vita in which the main character records various stages of her anguish in a series of photos which cartoon strip like show the tears about to come, then her crying and the final shot showing her with head in hands. An amazing sequence, summing up the effect of paparazzi upon the very famous and the very public. Perhaps even poignant in the wake of the untimely death of Princess Diana, whose own La Dolce Vita, was mediated so entirely by lens.

Another film featuring the photo me booth which comes to mind is the opening sequence of the Beatles film Hard Days Night directed by Richard Lester. A member of the fab four enters a booth at a railway station (I think it is Paul) and has his photo taken to evade the pursuit of hundreds of teeny boppers.

They were everywhere at one stage - particularly near where passports are processed, such as the post office (there is one near the General Post Office in Melbourne) and at railway stations - the little black and white or colour shots perfect for adorning the documents of officialdom with a little glue, tape or a paper clip. I needed one recently for my US visa, as the US government now digitises the photos and uses them as part of the visa itself - a low res dot matrixed image interwoven with complex lines like currency.

Photo me booths were usually used mainly for recreation - for those familiar images of young couples kissing, or kids pulling faces. But the construction and instructions and the mirror stuck on the outside usually connoted more officialdom than fun. The flashes going off, the curtain, the clunky sounds they made as they processed the film - all the internal pulleys and mechanisms dragging a piece of photosensitive paper through its innards. Someone had to come and replace the developer and fixer and water at regular intervals and photo-me booths were definitely the culmination of vending machines, amusement arcadia, and like cigarette machines, coke machines and public phones were places where people passed through, in transit. Places where a photo would offer a reminder to someone left behind, or otherwise assist with the complex demands society places on the importance of a portrait for the needs of identification and memory.

Digital technology and the games arcade has spawned a new variation on the phone-me booth, this time with recreation as its primary function. With names like Neoprint the machines, often lined up in rows of three or four create not photos in the sense of simple strips of wet paper with little portraits, but rather many tiny little photographs each about 1.5 cm across by 1cm high which are printed onto adhesive backed plastic sheets stamped into an array of four by four stickers. These machines use a built in video camera and digitiser to capture the users face, and by navigating a fairly simple computer screen interface, one can capture ones own portrait, retry if the first takes dont work, then choose different presentation formats for the total of 16 to a page stickers.

Options include having little captions underneath them which say such things as Thank You or For You or Congratulations or I Love You. Other options include black and white and wide screen to make the image look like a 35mm motion picture still (I particularly like this one!). Appealing directly to the narcissism of adolescents (like me), the devices are placed prominently near the doors to amusement arcades, and are decked out in bright pinks and iridescent sweet colours like lime green.

They are beautifully designed as objects and are as every bit late 90s as photo-me booths are early 1960s. Theyll look back on these the way we do the Edison Kinetoscope hand cranked movie viewers from the nineteen teens - fancy, overdesigned, arranged in rows in arcades called Nickleodeans and flattering the viewers own view of the world, with himself at that worlds centre.

Another type of coin operated self portrait device called Stampnomoto creates from a captured video image a kind of tiny silk screen stamp with its own ink supply. These resemble wicker baskets which can be decorated with a set of cutesy stickers which come with the thing in its little box. First, by following the onscreen instructions and diagrams you take the small cardboard box from a pop open bin. Inside the box is the blank stamp. You remove the lid off the blank stamp and you then slide this assembly into a slot. It takes a bit of pushing, but once in place the stamp is ready to receive your picture. You take your own photo, then choose a border to surround your face - perhaps your face as the head of a cartoon character riding a horse, or as shown here, your head on the paper coming out of a typewriter. Once complete, you can use the finished stamp to create a little colour monochrome portrait on anything flat.

I wonder in amazement at the cultural fact of these devices and as my image is scanned and presented back to me Japanified and made cute, I feel closer to the reality of life in the digital city. These images are ghostly, even phantasmagoric. At the Sony Center in San Francsico recently, my partner and I were able to have a hologram made of us kissing. The image of us turning and kissing moves as one angles the card on which it is mounted from side to side under a light. To take the hologram, a video camera on a kind of four foot long conveyor belt scanned our faces over a period of five seconds as we kissed. The resultant frames were then processed in an adjacent lab, which converted the digital frames into the reflective white light hologram moving image the size of a large postage stamp.

In a sense the technology of the space/time based arts like cinema and the space recording arts like photography have converged to enable moving holograms which record events, albeit short span ones, and to present those events in movie like images which can be seen in ordinary white light. I am happy to be able to buy my own image so directly, and in a way which somehow articulates the triviality with which this face can accompany the vast sea of images created in the name of a global culture of media triumph.

My image is just another image, and we worship not our own faces at these shrine like digital altars of being faceless, but the simple fact that personal identity is itself the commodity being sold here as everywhere else in the metropolis. We feel closer to being a part of the digital landscape when we can add our own professionally created image to the rest of them out there on the streets, the gun toting heroes of the movie posters, the ocean of pictures which the society of the spectacle places in our way. Even if our image is the size of a postage stamp, we can tell whoever sees the image If only for a brief period of time, "I was here"...

By David Cox