Rich with history and detail, “Photobooth: A Biography” from Conundrum Press is a surprising exploration of a dying phenomenon and the community that cherishes it.
Written and illustrated by Meags Fitzgerald
For almost a century chemical photobooths have occupied public spaces; giving people the opportunity to quickly take inexpensive, quality photos. In the last decade these machines have started to rapidly disappear, causing an eclectic group of individuals from around the world to come together and respond. Illustrator, writer and long-time photobooth lover, Meags Fitzgerald has chronicled this movement and the photobooth’s fortuitous history in a graphic novel. Having traveled in North America, Europe and Australia, she’s constructed a biography of the booth through the eyes of technicians, owners, collectors, artists and fanatics. Fitzgerald explores her own struggle with her relationship to these fleeting machines, while looking to the future.
As you might guess from the “biography” in the title, this is a memoir as well as a history. So, at the same time as learning about the genesis, evolution, and decline of traditional (read: chemical) photobooths, we also learn the surprising ways in which pursuing her passion has changed Meags Fitzgerald’s life for the better. Travelling extensively in order to visit as many photobooths – and photobooth enthusiasts – as possible, Fitzgerald’s experiences are various, instructive, and sometimes terrifying.
With thick pencil strokes and washes of grey, the book has a soothing, nostalgic look. It’s also text-heavy, with loose, versatile layouts spanning the straightforward historical sections and the more expressive bits of memoir. The flow of information can be overwhelming, the order of events sometimes puzzling, but with a painterly attention to composition, and an eye for revealing detail, Fitzgerald maintains forward momentum.
That unique vision extends to the photobooths themselves, and their various iterations over the years. Fitzgerald faithfully catalogues their appearances, meaning many readers will do a double-take at some point in the book, recognizing a photobooth they once used.
Fitzgerald has amassed a collection of photobooth pictures over the years, and reproduces dozens of these within the comic’s pages – drawing them out by hand, but maintaining their photorealistic look. Occasionally, Fitzgerald will give a whole page to one of the more significant photos in her collection, reproducing it in softer pencil strokes. The change of scale lends a dreamy, fantastical air, especially when the pictures depict strangers far from us in space and time.
These reproductions also spotlight Fitzgerald’s knack for portraiture, and it’s by means of the photostrips that we really get to know the people encountered in Fitzgerald’s travels. The vibrancy of the community is tangible, with the faces in the photostrips getting across all kinds of quirk and energy.
The history of photobooths themselves is explored in pieces as the narrative continues, sometimes getting a little dry as the differences between makes and models are detailed. The story of Anatol Josepho, inventor of the first automated photobooth, makes for unifying thread, with his harrowing experiences in World War I Europe and beyond making this biography-within-a-history memorable.
Along the way, fascinating tidbits come to the forefront – did you know that there’s a central flaw to the photobooth plot in Amélie? Or, more upsettingly: did you know that events that couldn’t afford photobooths actually employed people, having them develop photos by hand while hidden inside the booth?
As the book moves forward, the idea of the photobooth curtain creating a private space within a public ones gains unusual resonance. It’s one of the reasons we have photostrips of gay couples dating from World War II; it’s one of the reasons photobooths feel so magical.
The recent past and uncertain future of photobooths are given due diligence as Fitzgerald explores the rapid, but not complete, takeover of digital booths. Reasons for the extinction of the traditional kind are made clear: even more so than other dying, fascinating things, they’re inconvenient to maintain, requiring regular tune-ups by technicians who themselves can be exposed to a dangerous chemical. But, as Fitzgerald is sure to emphasize, the community of photobooth enthusiasts has stepped up, buying old photobooths and learning their workings.
The feeling of that community – enthusiasm in the face of extinction – is the driving force behind the book, and comes across more and more strongly as it reaches its conclusion. Holding onto that enthusiasm, Fitzgerald morphs from a penniless traveler to someone who repairs and restores a photobooth as part of her job. (And finally, draws this comic about the whole thing.)Continued below
Overall, “Photobooth: A Biography” is a soulful, revelatory read, with some hiccups in the writing doing little to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Its visual charisma brings a whole community to life, and the passion it conjures is infectious. There are worse bugs to catch.