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American Photo Booth' Illuminates History Of Invention, Enterprise And Marketing In Coin Industry's Early Years

Posted On: 2/10/2008

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American Photo Booth by Näkki Goranin, W.W. Norton & Co., 224pp.

The Industrial Revolution was launched and is being renewed continually by entrepreneurs, and this has led to astonishing gaps in its historical record. Governments, especially their armed forces, have a keen sense of tradition, and establish museums to showcase not only such dramatic advances as the Wright Flyer, but also important but little-remembered innovations like the Bell P-59 Airacomet, America's first turbojet airplane.

By contrast, machines that created entire industries and shaped popular culture in entirely new ways have a distressing habit of vanishing without trace. The fortunate ones attract the attention of collectors, who painstakingly research their development, introduction and marketing. This can be remarkably difficult to do; a 75-year history of manufacturing and marketing on three continents can leave behind little more than a few tattered instruction manuals.

Very fortunate inventions attract the attention of historians like Näkki Goranin, a Vermont photographer and collector of historical photographs. American Photo Booth is the product of a decade's research which, by the author's account, she originally had no intention of undertaking. She became interested in the photos dispensed by these booths, plentiful but usually anonymous, and wondered how they were made. 

Readers of a certain age will remember the "four-for-a-quarter" photo booths that were fixtures of most F.W. Woolworth stores in the 1940s and '50s, and veteran coin machine operators will remember such names as Mutoscope and Auto-Photo (now Photo-Me). These companies, and many more, are extensively documented in this book -- and, as far as this reviewer can determine, nowhere else.

Goränin also has assembled a detailed account of the first practical photobooth and its inventor, Anatol Josepho. Born in Russia, he prototyped an automated photo studio in Austria before the outbreak of World War I, and launched his Photomaton in New York City in 1925.

Advances in precision manufacturing and the growth of urban populations gave rise to widespread, if diffuse, enthusiasm in industrialized nations for self-service novelty machines at the end of the 19th century. By World War I, this had prompted the deployment of bulk gum venders, eau-de-cologne dispensers and coin-operated scales, stamp vending machines and the Horn & Hardardt Automat.

Not surprisingly, self-service cameras made their tentative appearance in this period. The first seems to have been prototyped in France before the turn of the century, and Goränin has found a coin-operated tintype system produced by General Electric in 1915. These were ingenious, hard to maintain and confined to rather narrow niches. They did not lead to anything in particular.

Goränin understands, as many historians of technology do not, that the great inventors were also manufacturing and marketing geniuses who envisioned not only their creations, but the context in which they could be profitable. Many people had coated light-sensitive emulsions on flexible bases, for one purpose or another; George Eastman thought of a way to do it cost-effectively on a large scale. Of equal importance, he conceived a way to integrate the resulting film into a relatively inexpensive and very easy-to-use camera, then to distribute those cameras widely, and finally, to handle the photofinishing. The same versatility characterized Bell and Edison, Ford and Land, and the others whose names are enshrined in junior high school history books.

It also characterized Josepho, a trained mechanical engineer and a successful photographer and studio proprietor. He not only raised automated reversal processing of direct-positive paper prints to a whole new level, but he worked with C.P. Goertz in Germany to develop the best possible lens for his camera -- and he was an inspired marketer. His Photomaton studios offered not only the photo booths but also skilled attendants, who encouraged customers to have their favorite photos enlarged. They thrived during the Great Depression, and the one in New York City was immensely popular during World War II with service personnel on leave. Josepho lived to the age of 86 and died in California in 1980.

His Photomaton inspired emulation, and Goränin also has documented the emulators in the United States and Canada. She has located a surprising number of people involved with photobooths, right up to the present digital era. She tells a number of fascinating stories along the way, and introduces a large cast of engaging people, many of them well-known in the coin machine industry.

The present grows continually out of the past, and anyone interested in the growth of the coin-operated industries will find this book not only uniquely informative, but lively and sympathetic. Entrepreneurs are known for looking ahead, not back -- Henry Ford famously said, "history is bunk" -- but they deserve their histories, and American Photo Booth is one of the best.

The book also will delight anyone who admires old photos, of which it contains a great many, very well reproduced. Some might feel that the text, laid out rather haphazardly, is overshadowed by the photos; but it is very possible that Goranin wanted this effect.