Friday, 3 May 2013

Sepia Saturday 175: Andy Warhol looks a scream, Hang him on my wall


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett & Kat Mortensen

Several regular visitors from Sepia Saturday have in the past commented on the length of some of my articles and asked how long it takes me to compile them. The short answer is How long's a piece of string? because some (e.g SS173) are off the cuff, while others are years in the making, gestating slowly either in my mind or as an accumulating collection of notes on the computer's hard disk. This week's contribution is one of the latter, a culmination of some four years of research, the publication of which has been triggered by a fortuitous find in the Tauranga Heritage Collection's store of cameras and photographic paraphernalia, and Alan's image prompt featuring coin-operated machines.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photobooth self portraits by Andy Warhol, c. 1963
Gelatin silver prints, each 36 x 196 mm
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I've long had a fascination with the idea of photobooths, although by the time Andy Warhol turned them into tools of pop art and culture in the 1960s, they were well past their heyday. I don't remember ever seeing one, let alone having my portrait captured in one, during my youth in the 1960s and 1970s, but admittedly I was living in a former colonial backwater.

What made this style of portrait unique, at least until the advent of digital cameras and the ubiquitous camera phone, and no doubt the main attraction for the average joe (Hofman, 2011) as well as Warhol and like-minded celebrities, was that its composition was placed firmly in the hands of the subject.
For Warhol, the photo booth represented a quintessentially modern intersection of mass entertainment and private self-contemplation ... In these little curtained theaters, the sitter could adopt a succession of different roles ... Here, Warhol has adopted the surly, ultracool persona of movie stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, icons of the youth culture that he idolized.

(Anon, 2000)


Photobooth portraits of Surrealist figures
Photomontage by André Breton, 1928

He was not the first to use the photobooth in such a manner, the French surrealist André Breton having reputedly persuaded various contemporaries, including Salvador Dali, Max Ernest and Rene Magritte, into entering recently installed Photomaton booths on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the products of which he then compiled into the slightly disturbing photomontage above (Bloch, 2012).

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of two unidentified men, one in soldier's uniform, c.1915-1916
Taken at Sidney Boultwood's Stickybacks studio, 66 St Peter's St, Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

While I don't intend to recount the origins and early history of the photobooth here, I will recommend Mark Bloch's Behind the Curtain and David Simkin's Automatic Portrait Photographs, which do exactly that, in an authoritative, concise manner. For a more detailed account, try Näkki Goranin's recently published and well received book, American Photobooth. Although there were various attempts at mechanisation and automation of the photographic portraiture process from the late 1880s onwards, including Spiridione Grossi and Abraham Dudkin's Stickybacks in the United Kingdom (Simkin, 2013a & b), none appear to have met with significant commercial success until the mid-1920s.

Image © Modern Mechanics and courtesy of modernmechanix.com
Anatol Josepho with his Photomaton booth
Image © Modern Mechanics and courtesy of modernmechanix.com

Then in 1925 Anatol Josepho, a distant relative of Abraham Dudkin, patented the first reliable coin-operated automatic photobooth, the Photomaton. Advertised as producing a strip of eight cheap, good quality photographs in 8 minutes, the first Photomaton booths in New York were spectacularly successful, reputedly attracting "280,000 customers in the first 6 months." Two years later Josepho sold the Photomaton machines and patent rights to Henry Morgenthau for a staggering million dollars and future royalties (Kneen, 1928 & Bloch, 2012).

Image courtesy of Google PatentsImage courtesy of Google Patents
William Rabkin's 1937 Photomatic Patent Application No. 2,192,755
Images courtesy of Google Patents

Throughout the 1930s there were numerous copy-cat efforts and refinements, but the most significant development took place in 1934, after William Rabkin bought out both Photomaton and the International Mutoscope Reel Company. He improved the design of the photographic apparatus, transformed the exteriors with art deco styling and changed the name to the Photomatic. A new wave of photobooth popularity ensued, perhaps due to the chic styling available at a low cost during the peak of the Great Depression.

Image © and courtesy of The Powerhouse Museum
Original Photomatic photo booth, Machine No. DP 3
Image © and courtesy of The Powerhouse Museum

Photomatic booths were manufactured in enormous numbers, in almost any colour you could think of, and shipped to all corners of the world. The remarkably intact apparatus in the image above from Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, apparently one of the few examples that have survived, was probably used in Queensland around 1935 to 1938.

Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection
Instruction plate from a Photomatic photo booth, c.1935-1940
Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection

This rather grimy Photomatic booth instruction plate from the Tauranga Heritage Collection (above, Machine No. DP 220) is all that's left of a seemingly identical apparatus, suggesting that the machines may also have been exported to and used within New Zealand. Wellington's Evening Post carried an advertisement in January 1940 (below) calling for the services of a "smart young girl" to operate a Photomatic machine at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition.

Image © and courtesy of National Library of New Zealand and Papers Past
Advertisement, Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand), 23 January 1940


Portrait of unidentified woman, 14 October 1938
Silver gelatin print in crimped metal frame with printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth at Detroit Bus Station

The feature differentiating Photomatic portraits from those produced by competitors was that the customer received a print "already framed." Constructed of a thin strip of sheet metal, the frame was crimped around the silver gelatin print and a printed card backing. Early Photomatic frames were all silver in colour and the backing designs simple, allowing for a date and place taken to be written by the customer. The card itself followed the art deco theme, and was usually a shiny silver colour.


Postcard of Greyhound Bus Terminal, Detroit, Michigan
Image © and courtesy of Donald Coffin's Greyhound Bus Memories

The Photomatic booth where the 1938 portrait above of a woman in her smart hat and furs was taken would have matched the sleek lines of the Greyhound Detroit Bus Terminal exterior perfectly.

Image © Marc Frattasio and courtesy of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.Image © Marc Frattasio and courtesy of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.
Portrait of unidentified woman, undated
Silver gelatin print in crimped metal frame with printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth on the NYNHH Railroad
Image © Marc Frattasio and courtesy of the New Haven RR H&T Assn

Photobooth concessions were operating in public places country-wide, and the backing card stock soon carried the names of the locations or concessions. The portrait of the woman above was probably taken by Photomatic booth located on a station platform or in a waiting room similar to that shown at Boston's South Station, below.

Image © and courtesy of The New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.
Photomatic booth in waiting room, South Station, Boston
Image © Marc Frattasio and courtesy of The New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.


Portrait of unidentified man, 6 November 1938
Silver gelatin print in crimped metal frame with printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth at Plankinton Arcade, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This taciturn young man and his somewhat oversized cap paused long enough in the Photomatic booth in the busy Plankinton Arcade to record his passing through in the autumn of 1938. Wherever there were throngs of people, the International Mutoscope Reel Co. installed their Photomatic booths.

Image © Brian and courtesy of The Photobooth Blog
Portrait of unidentified soldier, 13 January 1942
Silver gelatin print in crimped metal frame with printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in Washington, D.C.
Image © Brian and courtesy of Photobooth.net

A little over three years later, and the booths were filled with very different looking subjects. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the United States was at war and tens of thousands of uniformed servicemen all wanted a photo before they shipped out. Five weeks after the Declaration of War, this soldier was probably both excited and nervous when he posed with a cupid-style caricature cut-out in Washington D.C. in January 1942.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of unidentified US Marine, 25 February 1944
Silver gelatin print with magenta card frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in Newark, New Jersey
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In 1944 and 1945, possibly due to shortages of metal, Photomatic portraits were produced with thick coloured satin-finish card "Photoframes." This example from early 1944 shows a marine home on furlough in Newark, New Jersey.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of unidentified woman, September 1945
Silver gelatin print with blue card frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in New York City

These wartime issues had no special place on the back for the place and date to be filled, but some helpful subjects wrote them anyway. This happy bespectacled woman in a striped blouse was presumably caught up in the euphoria that swept New York after the Japanese surrender on 14 August:
In the summer of 1945, New York was a city riding a wave of triumph ... It was a time of unbridled self-confidence. The city had contributed 850,000 servicemen to the war effort. The war had transformed New York into the capital of the world.

(Roberts, 1995)


Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of unidentified woman, 8 June 1947
Silver gelatin print with red metal frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in New York

After the war ended, Photomatic reintroduced metal frames, and for a couple of years they were enamelled in a variety of colours, including white, red, pale blue, lime green and orange. However, the frame itself had a slightly different profile, as shown in a modified patent application filed by Rabkin in 1948 (below), and included a fold-out stand.

Images courtesy of Google Patents
William Rabkin's 1948 Photomatic Patent Application No. 2,647,834
Image courtesy of Google Patents

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of unidentified US soldier, undated
Silver gelatin print with silver metal frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in unidentified location
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Eventually the enamelling was dispensed with, and the standard issue frames returned to either plain silver or, more rarely, gold. I suspect this young man's uniform is not military (Correction: this is a US Army cap badge, thanks Mike), but he was proud of it and it's sad that he didn't take the time to record a message on the back. It is probably from the late 1950s.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of two unidentified women, 13 July 1953
Silver gelatin print with silver metal frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in unknown location
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This image of two young women was taken in July 1953 and bears the caption, "Dig this". Comparing their clothing and hairstyles with an old Life magazine from that date, it seems likely that they'd been out shopping or to the hair stylist. They do seem rather pleased with themselves.

Image © musicmuse_ca and courtesy of Flickr
Portrait of Beth's mother, 17 July 1945
Silver gelatin print with silver metal frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth at Grand Central Station, New York City
Image © and courtesy of musicmuse_ca & Flickr

It is a sad reality that many of the subjects of such found photos and the places where they were taken will never be identified, let alone the context or situation be deduced. However, browsing the internet for examples of Photomatics, one soon appreciates that many of them are still in situ, so to speak, and form an important part of family history. This image on musicmuse_ca's Flickr photostream shows her mother on her wedding day.
This is the shot my mother took on the day she got married to her first husband Fred. It was taken on a photomatic photo machine in Grand Central train station in NYC.
He got a job working for the Canadian Press in NYC. He had been dating my mother since 1939, and they had virtually lived together for several years in Toronto. He asked her to marry him and they took the train from Toronto to NYC.
The marriage to Fred did not last more than 5 years, but my mother's love affair with NYC lasted from 1945 until her death in Manhattan in January of 2003.
These words and further background to the story (Truth, Lies and Betrayal 9/1939) make it a material symbol, despite its inauspicious beginnings in the hustle and bustle of New York's Grand Central Station.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Portrait of unidentified woman, undated
Silver gelatin print with red plastic frame & printed card backing
Taken by Photomatic booth in unknown location

By the late 1950s, the design of the frame had changed again, the crimped metal being replaced by much more the much more versatile, rust-proof and cheaper ubiquitous plastic. The characteristic art deco styling of the Photomatic brand was gone forever.


Unidentified couple, Long Beach Pier, Los Angeles, California, undated
Snapshot by unidentified photographer

The Photomatic was also facing stiff competition from rivals. Bloch (2012) suggests that it was outclassed by the superior technological, marketing and distribution techniques of companies such as Auto-Photo Co. One should not ignore the fact that more and more people owned their own cameras. This snapshot, probably from the mid- to late 1950s, shows a sailor and his sweetheart, the latter with a camera in a leather case around her shoulder. They are posing in front of a Penny Arcade at Long Beach Pier, an unoccupied photobooth clearly visible in the background.

Image © and courtesy of These Americans Archive
Photomatic photobooth, candy and cigarette machines, Kansas, 1959
Image © and courtesy of These Americans Archive

I get the impression that Photomatic booths, despite attempts at rebranding and restyling, were slowly being relegated to the amusement arcades and drugstores where their predecessors had originated a quarter of a century earlier. This 1959 booth, perched between the candy and cigarette machines, boasts a brand new look and a comely invitation to "Take your photo ... now!" but I detect a whisper of hesitation. Perhaps she, like Jeannette below, is waiting for the right man to come along.


"Jeanette" and Elvis Presley, undated
Photobooth portrait at unidentified location

References

Photobooth.net, by Brian and Tim

International Mutoscope Reel Company, from Wikipedia.

The History & Progression of the Photo Booth, from Green Cheeze's Blog.

Andy Warhol, lyrics by David Bowie, 1971

Photographic booths, 1930-1940, from The Powerhouse Museum.

Anon (1934) Business & Finance: Pin Game, 24 December 1934, TIME Magazine.

Anon (1935) Science: Photomatic, Monday, 4 February 1935, TIME Magazine.

Anon (2000) "Andy Warhol: Photo Booth Self-Portrait (1996.63a,b)," in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (October 2006)

Anon (2004) The "PhotoMatic" Photo Machines, New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, Inc.

Anon (2013) Say 'cheese in the photobooth, from Diario de Una Pin Up Frustrada, 24 January 2013.

Bloch, Mark (2012) Behind the Curtain: A History of the Photobooth.

Goranin, Näkki (2008) The history of the photobooth, 7 March 2008, The Telegraph, Extract from American Photobooth by Näkki Goranin, publ. by W.W. Norton & Company.

Griffiths, Katherine (2011-2013) - Photobooth Journal: A life in a photobooth.

Hofman, Juli (2011) Photomatic Pics of my Grandpa: D*** It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta, posted 5 Dec 2011 on The Williamson Vampires blog.

Kneen, Orville H. (1928) Penniless Inventor Gets Million for Photo Machine, in Modern Mechanics and Inventions, November 1928.

Linderman, Jim (2011) Mat Mugs! The Wonderful Photomatic Photograph Machine and Mutoscope. William Rabkin Fast Talking Genius of the Photomatic Machine and the Claw, posted in April 2011 on the Dull Tool Dim Bulb blog.

Roberts, Sam (1994) NEW YORK 1945; The War Was Ending. Times Square Exploded. Change Was Coming. in The New York Times, 30 July 1995.

Simkin, David (2013a) Automatic Portrait Photographs: The Sticky Backs Studio, Spiridione Grossi, Abraham Dudkin, Anatol Josepho and the Photomaton, on Sussex PhotoHistory.

Simkin, David (2013b) Sidney Boultwood and his Stickybacks Studios, on Sussex PhotoHistory.



44 comments:

  1. Brilliant post Brett, absolutely fascinating. I had no idea photobooths had been around so long. I've never seen any of these photos with the metal frames before, I guess because I've never looked. Oh, and the guy in the uniform in the Stickybacks photo looks a lot like Kevin Spacey!

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    1. So he does, Howard. Glad you enjoyed the article.

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  2. Private Stickyback is a Sherwood Forester of course.

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    1. I'm familiar with the badge, of course, but hadn't noticed that, so thanks for pointing it out, Nigel.

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  3. Great article and fantastic photos. I've come across a few stickybacks but none of the framed photomatics.

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    1. Thanks Lisa. I'd be very keen to see the Stickybacks, if you have some in your collection.

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  4. What an interesting article.. all you ever wanted to know about photo booths! I shall look at my old passport photos in a different light now! (When I was younger the game was to see how many people we could get into a photo booth..usually done on the way home from a night out!)

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    1. I have seen a few of those. What was your record? And where is the evidence? I look forward to seeing some of these on your blog in due course.

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  5. Where I live the photobooth has made a major comeback as a fun feature at wedding receptions as well as company parties. The photobooth operators provide funny masks, hats, boas, big sunglasses, and other props.

    I have a copy of a photostrip picturing my great grandaunt's ex-husband with his mistress -- part of the evidence in their divorce proceedings. Nothing worse than getting caught being stupid.

    I very much enjoyed reading the history of the photobooth.

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    1. Yes, my family and I had ours taken in just such a booth at my nephew's wedding a few years ago. I thought it was an excellent idea, although I'm not big on boas etc. myself.

      Now that's an unusual back story to a photobooth strip! It's often the circumstances surrounding such an image that bring a portrait from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

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  6. VERY nice work, and thanks! Jim Linderman
    Dull Tool Dim Bulb

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    1. Thanks Jim, for your kind words. I was intending to bring your images more into the article, but there's a limit to the amount you can fit in - even if it is interesting - before readers start drifting off.

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  7. I had my picture taken in one of those old booths when I was young. I seem to remember seeing a booth in a shopping mall fairly recently. If I see one again, I may try it out.

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    1. Well I hope you'll share the result with us too.

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  8. What a fabulous post. I've seen one of the books about photo booths. Now I don't have to buy it. You've told me everything I need to know and more.
    The photo booth was a pivotal prop in the French film "Amelie". Did you see it?
    Nancy

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    1. No I haven't seen the film, Nancy, but of course I'll be on the lookout for it now. I believe that photobooths have appeared in quite a few films, including one by Frank Sinatra, but I can't recall ever having seen a film with one in.

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  9. I enjoyed this walk down photo booth lane - I have been to gatherings lately where a photo booth is set up for participant fun. My husband and I sat in one at an Inaugural Ball - but I wasn't ready for the "snap" so the strip of pictures are ones I would never post. I'm glad your subjects were more photogenic.

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    1. Oh dear, well I hope you'll have another opportunity for composure rather than "indecent exposure," so to speak, and will share the results with us.

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  10. I sure remember those photo booths. I have lots of photo booth photos to record my life in the late 50's and 60's. Every Thrifty Drug Store had one out in front at the time.
    By the way- referring to your comment om my castle sepia saturday post- We are related by marriage and Nancy and I are related to your wife. I did find a direct link to Hugh Bigod.

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    1. Well I trust you'll share some of those on Sepia Saturday some day.

      Good that you were able to find the link to the venerable Hugh.

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  11. Fantastic piece of research and entertaining reading. The photo booth pictures seem to have a special allure. I have a few in my boxes of 4 and even 5 of us all piled on top of each other and crammed into the booth. What fun.

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    1. That seems to be the overriding sentiment about photobooth portraits - "what fun!"

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  12. A terrific piece of history, Brett and a good read too. The man in the 1944 Newark photo is no soldier but a US Marine from his cap badge. However the next fellow in a cap is a soldier with a US Army cap badge. His enlisted rank would be on his shirt sleeve but is not in view. I'd guess late 1950s or early 1960s from the open shirt.

    Does this photobooth technology continue in the third world? Seems like it would still be viable in many less sophisticated parts of the world.

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    1. Thank you Mike, for your corrections. If you don't mind, I'll correct these in the main text too.

      To be honest, I've not seen anything like this in the Third World in the 1980s and 1990s, and I think digital technology is now so cheap and ubiquitous that it would struggle to compete.

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  13. I did not know there was so much history hidden in the humble photo booth. Great post, thanks for this information and photos. I did not know that they existed from such an early time. I did not use them in the sixties any more, but certainly used them together with my friends in the fifties.

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    1. All this and plenty more. Even restricting myself to one particular brand of photobooth, there was so much to write about.

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  14. An excellent post! Informative and an easy read. You collected a very impressive group of "already framed" photo booth portraits. Good one!

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  15. The Andre Breton Surrealist figures looked like old police mugshots to me. For a number of years from the 1960s I used photo booths for passport and identity photos. No-one I knew had cameras then and photographers were too expensive.

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    1. I think that must have been quite a common use for them, not just to while away a few minutes while waiting for a train.

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  16. Such an amazing collection of information....today those photo booths exist only in some memories with everyone having digital ability. From Andy through the photos. Very fun reading.

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  17. Oh I am going to be searching for some of those stickybacks, if I haven't already found them and didn't know it! Again what an interesting post you outlined, complete with photos and one of my younger versions of "The King" of rock and roll! Great post, thanks.

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    1. Let me know if you find any Stickybacks - I find them charming - although I think they are pretty much restricted to the UK.

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  18. I had never seen the framed photo booth pictures before. My friends and I spent our share of quarters making silly faces for the camera in a photo booth. Unfortunately, I think I only have 3-4 pictures from one strip. I wonder what happened to the rest?

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    1. Perhaps they were given away to friends and family?

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  19. I have some photos from my great grandmother in the 1930s and through the years to one of my sister,my oldest daughter and myself in 1970. I only have one strip thought. The rest are singles.

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    1. That's the same with my family collection - only a couple where they are still in strips. There was one company in the UK - Polyphoto - which produced more than just a strip. There were a dozen or more in a grid pattern. I'll see if I can feature them in a future Photo-Sleuth article.

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  20. I don't think that the photo booths were as popular in Australia? Or maybe it is because my family were all from country areas that I haven't come across any photos?

    The waiting room photo intrigued me. Did you notice the ghostly figures? It looks like a double exposure rather than a slow exposure?

    Jeanette doesn't look happy to be sitting on Elvis' knee either.

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    1. I hadn't noticed the ghostly figures - well done for spotting them. I suspect it may have been a double exposure, because exposure times by the 1930s/1940s were not long enough to have produced such effects. Perhaps it was even intentional, to give the idea of a busy station waiting room.

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  21. A very interesting history of photomatic machines. I have never seen the photos with a frame. I remember the machines when I lived in Sydney in my teens but the photos never had frames.

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    1. Yes, I think the frames were fairly specific to that brand, and probably only commonly found in the United States, even though the booths were exported elsewhere.

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  22. Splendid post!!
    Given my mother's skills with a camera,
    I was often tossed into one of these,
    at Woolworth,
    in my best clothes
    to sooth my mother's maternal instincts...
    Breton's collage is really the piece de resistance
    [for me].
    Bravo!!
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. Sorry I didn't respond to this at the time, Bruno. So where is the evidence? Do you still have some of those photobooth shots?

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