BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Photography: Small Faces

Babbette Hine's Study of Photo Booth Images

BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 03 MAR 03

Some moments are best left unrecorded, best folded in a pocket of memory with the rest of our half-recalled, wholly mythologized epiphanies, spots of time looming from memory's dark ground. A snapshot of a cherished instant: it is 4 a.m. on a summer's night and, despite the heat and the wine, really far too late (or too early) for this young man to be dragging his date towards the white glare of a bus station forecourt's photo booth, with the bright idea (in the end, wisely declined) of catching a giddy pre-taxi quartet of images - an archive of a night that needed none.

Quite why the photo booth was functioning at that hour was a mystery anyway: how many pallid, bleary ID photos had started turning up on provincial bus passes? Maybe haggard commuters were comforted to know that they looked a lot fresher than the nocturnal wraiths they showed to early morning drivers. Or perhaps the bus company realized that, whatever the hour, the photo booth's flash always arrives at precisely the wrong instant: just as you're not quite looking yourself.

As Lawrence Weschler points out in his preface to Babbette Hines' Photobooth (2002), a selection from its 75-year history, the photo booth is a machine for manufacturing anachronisms. 1 It thrusts its sitter into temporal confusion; if it reminds Weschler of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), it also conjures up a host of other contraptions for self-transportation: real and imaginary mechanisms for projecting ourselves elsewhere. By the time Anatol Josepho, a Siberian immigrant who had long dreamt of such a machine, patented his Photomaton in 1925 and installed the first booth on New York's 51st Street, his invention had already accrued a tentative prehistory with the arrival of the coin-operated vending machine in 1883 and the unveiling of an automated photographic machine at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The photo booth is a vision of the future, a radiant confessional from which the subject emerges uneasily absolved of his or her own self-image: 'Is that really what I look like?' The answer, painfully, is always 'yes'.

It is tempting to see the images collected in Photobooth as laden with melancholy, to read there Barthes' 'flat death' or Benjamin's vanishing aura: 'the cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead'. In his book L'image fantôme (1981) the critic Hervé Guibert writes of visiting a Photomaton in Florence: 'I did not know whether the images that came from the machine reinforced my isolation, or liberated me from it. With one of them, I ordered in a shop my funerary medallion.' 2 Something in the photo-booth image evokes - as, fancifully and mistakenly, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie (2001) - the spectral notion of the dead gazing across at us from the frontiers of the immemorial. Hines' collection has its share of such vanished beings. The deaths of soldiers in World War II are recorded in crabbed handwriting on the reverse of the photographs: 'Pt. Kenneth Conrad, Age 22 & 6 months, George's nephew, Killed in Battle, WWII.' The photographs themselves capture smart uniforms and relaxed faces, memories left behind for loved ones.

But the optimism, however wary, on the faces of these young men suggests that another temporality traverses the photo booth picture: these are records not of loss but of hope. More than any other mode of amateur (if that is what it is) photography, the photo booth captures a gaze that looks to the future. Whether destined for a lover's pocket, a passport or a driving licence, the photograph reflects a boundless optimism, a sense that the sitter is going somewhere (the traveller's papers are in order, the lover's tiny talismanic image magically ensures a joyous return). The photographs collected here capture faces - rueful, flirtatious, quizzical, stern, cocky, coy - characterized by an obvious lack of boredom (it is probably impossible to be bored in a photo booth).

A boy of about 12 rehearses a series of expressions, by turns 'childish' and 'adult', as if training for a lifetime of gestures and bodily attitudes. Two teenage girls try out a few grins and grimaces; but here they are a few years later, frozen 20 times in a riot of action: manic glee, cod seductiveness, startled gawping. So many of the later images (broadly from the early 1970s onwards) tend toward an explosion of gesture, as if the sitters cannot wait to leap from one frame to the next, as if the typical strip of four images is straining to match its cinematic counterpart.

Earlier subjects have more of a sense of occasion, the ability to compose themselves before the camera (two distinct historical periods of gesture, they collide in Warhol's photo booth pictures: froideur versus bodily extravagance). Perhaps they understood better the innate theatricality of the apparatus, the distance between metropolitan frenzy and the rhythm of the flash. It is not only the curtain that suggests a diminutive theatre: exotic scenography surrounds the subjects: landscapes, palm trees, the World's Fair of 1934. Printed or handwritten captions ('To the one I love', 'Tom and Lenore', 'Bobby!') add narrative context to these sprightly, kempt figures whose sharp suits, smart hats and proud gazes refuse to revert to mere memento mori and who resolutely will not stop looking ahead.

The classic photo booth picture records a gesture of faith, though never in our own appearance, only in a desirable future: a future together. The couples here are the most compelling (that's so them, so us). Their looks and gestures are crystals of historical memory (where 'history' is pure utopia: the space where desire and recollection meet). As a woman sits in a photo booth some time in the 1940s and turns her face just far enough towards her lover to ruin any notion of a formal pose, but not far enough to kiss him, the future opens up: a place to find a face you could live with, a face you could love.

1. Babbette Hines, Photobooth, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2002.
2. Hervé Guibert, L'image fantôme, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1981, p. 61.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.