Image by John Garrison.
Meags loves photobooths.
Produced by Benjamin Frisch.
Opening song by George Langford.
Final song: Laisse Autant Le Vent Tout Emporter – Les Breastfeeders – Dejeuner Sur L’HerbePlaylist
Meags – “The Photobooth Girl”
Producers: Benjamin Frisch, Jessi Carrier
So when you insert the money in a dip and dunk booth, it covers the camera. There’s a little red light; that first sway can always be the most awkward one. It’s four Canadian one dollar coins.
I can hear the transmission… Yeah, they’re most interested hearing the motor, like a ker-chunk sound, and there’s a loud ker-chunk sound. The knife cuts the paper from the reel, that’s the loud ker-chunk sound.
When I go use a photo booth, usually I look around to make sure that there’s no one else nearby and that I’m kind of like alone in that moment. I pull back the curtain, adjust the seat… As soon as I walk into a photo booth I really can notice that chemical smell, like gasoline, that sort of thing.
About two and a half seconds between each frame; you can kind of be like blinded by the development of the pictures. They mostly come out wet, and when the photos come out they’re facing backward. You have to pinch your fingers in this weird way. The contrast is perfect… Overexposed, underexposed, super dark… I like all of the photos.
The arms actually swing out from the inner cylinder. There’s a metallic-y sound as the arms bob in the tanks. Um, gosh, how should I describe that…? The paper is exposed one frame at a time, moving down into the first spider arm, and then the spider arm rotates around the tanks, which is attached to a transmission that makes it go up and down. The arms are called spiders. They swing out and hold the pictures and bob them, so they can develop seven pictures at once.
The photos then get fed into a shoot and then they come out. And then yeah, after about sort of two and a half, three minutes – depending on the model – you’ll get your photos outside.
* * *
The first picture that I have in my collection was from 1999. I was going on a movie night with my mom and my two sisters. Because I was like 11, I chose Spice World… But afterwards we used this black and white photo booth in the basement of this mall. My mom was still holding the popcorn from the movie, so the popcorn is like up to her face in a lot of the pictures.
I think it just sort of like clicked for me, “This is just so great.” There are these booths all around downtown, and I went to school downtown. I was within walking distance of I think like five photo booths back then. They just became this place for me to slip away to and take these pictures just for myself.
Spending four bucks a week on a photo booth as a teenager was a lot of money to me, so I would plan really elaborate photo shoots, and bring intensive costumes and props and backgrounds; I was just sort of like figuring out the timing and my angles and all of that. I would take the pictures with me in mind, but then would obsessively show them to all of my friends in the social group.
Social media didn’t exist back then; there wasn’t a way to easily show pictures of yourself to people. Whenever we had a boring moment in class or waiting for something, I would take out the pictures and entertain people by passing them around.
By 2004 I was pretty well-known as “the Photo Booth Girl.”
The inconsistencies in photo booth pictures show me that the photo booth is alive in this way. It’s not this sterile digital thing using binary code to operate, it’s this unpredictable component. There are just so many factors that change how the photos are gonna come out, that come down to like how old the paper is, if the paper was every partially exposed, the temperature of the chemicals, how often the booth is used – that’s a really big part of it, too. All of those things together are sort of markers of that photo booth and really define it.
Even if all the components on the inside are the same as every other dip and dunk photo booth, they’ve all kind of had their own history that sort of marks their photos. You’re not just hiring the photo booth to take your picture, you’re paying for it for its interpretation of that moment too, when you choose to use it.
Can you describe where we are?
We are in this awesome bar in Montreal called North Star Pinball. They have a ton of vintage pinball machines, and then they also have an awesome color chemical photo booth.
What model of photo booth is this?
This is now kind of a Frankenstein model, because it’s got the new camera in it, but this was a 17P or a 17C… And you can tell from up here. 17C.
Should we come up with a plan? How are we gonna do this?
Are you afraid of making stupid silly faces, and stuff like that?
Of course not.
Okay, great. I guess some people are. Let’s do a serious interview one, where I’ll look like I’m being interviewed, and then we should do one monster face, whatever monster means to you; that can be the second photo on the strip. And we can just look like we’re melting. So monsters and melting. Then the last one we’ll do like a nice smiling photo.
You should be able to see half of your face in the reflection, and all of my face. So… Serious interview… And the monsters! And melting. Oh, and smiling…
I think it’s really important to have your portrait taken. It creates this little moment of time of you and the world, that validates that you existed that day and is a marker for your life and where you were at that time.
The photo allows you to remembered on by people.
Alright, describe what you’re doing.
I am putting my fingers in the dispenser slot, and… Oh! [laughs] That’s sort of like our face! Very serious interview.
Well, that’s what you asked for.
I did! How interesting… This fabric reflected in a sort of weird way; the shine of it. Good job, team.
When photo booths first came onto the market in the 1920s they cost 25 cents, which is equivalent to $4 today. Previous to that, it was really expensive to have your portraits taken, and it was something that only like middle and upper-class people had available to them. A lot of marginalized populations, like gay and lesbian couples, were able to take their first photos together of them being intimate. No photo studio would allow them to take those kinds of portraits, and you couldn’t really develop a roll of film with those pictures on it back then.
I think it did a lot for people to be able to just take photos of themselves and not have the judgment of a photographer on the other side of the lens.
Can you just begin by explaining what you’re holding in your lap right now?
I am holding a three-inch ring binder that zips shut, and in it is probably about two to three thousand photo booth pictures.
This one is a really cool photo, because this one is a mugshot. Models 11A were originally used in police departments.
This guy has got huge hair and he’s in for something, but he also looks like “Everything will be fine.”
Yeah, he looks maybe a little stoned.
This woman is amazing… This is the only photo I have of her in my personal collection, but there are hundreds of pictures of her.
Most of the people who were like more on top of collective the vintage photos than me have nabbed up, and everyone’s just trying to figure who she is.
She’s always posing with different men, sometimes kissing them on the mouth, sometimes kissing them on the cheek, and it’s always the same exact photo booth model background. They wonder if she worked at this bar and posed with men and pretended to be their girlfriends, or whatever… Like a service, or something.
There’s just hundreds of these pictures. So if she had done that as an employment, it wouldn’t explain why all these photos were still collected together in the end, so she must have had copies of them, or someone else kept copies of them.
This photo was a gift to me. On the back — not on the actual back, because that would be sacrilege just to write on it… But I wrote a note attached to the back saying “Rare photo of professional poser.”
I have found a lot of photo booth pictures almost always in the actual dispenser of the photo booth, like someone had to leave before they could take them out, or didn’t realize that they weren’t instant and that they had to wait three minutes, so they left before then.
Sometimes you’ll actually find them in the photo booth as if someone found them in the dispenser and felt they shouldn’t leave them there… And they took them out of the dispenser and left them on the seat or on the floor for someone to come back for, I guess.
90% of the photo booth pictures I’ve found in my life have been within ten feet of the photo booth; you just have to know to look for them.
You know, when you see people walking past a payphone and they go and they put their two fingers in that slot to see if there’s change that’s left behind – I’m like that with photo booths; I’m always taking a peek to see if there’s anything left in the dispenser.
By the end of my degree, I had kind of found that the most interesting pictures in my collection were not the highly-posed backgrounds, costumes and props photos, but they were actually the every day “didn’t look particularly good”, but the photos captures some genuine emotion from me.
I started to do a lot of work with those pictures, and those photos were almost always really unflattering; they captured something really honest and at times very vulnerable. That’s when I actually started to feel interested in the feeling of over-sharing with people and what happens when you become really vulnerable by sharing personal details.
I would say that I do that to this day, as in right now. [laughter] Yeah.
So in 2012 I met this man who runs this photo booth company, refurbishing vintage photo booths in Chicago. He offered me a job and I was like “Yeah.” It took me two seconds to think about saying yes to it. It was like the most obvious thing I wanted to do with my life.
All of the work I’d been doing with photo booths sort of like culminated in actually getting to work with the machines. All of the experience I’d had with photo booths prior to this was really about the pictures and not so much about the booths.
I had never really had access to get inside of a photo booth and get messy with it, and actually service it and work with the chemicals in the camera.
Working with photo booths was totally 110% invigorating. I think that photo booths definitely replaced intimate relationships. They replaced my most important relationships, because I literally moved away from a city where I had hundreds of amazing friends, and I left a relationship to move to Chicago. I left all those people for photo booths.
Photo booths had already been what I would consider like among my best friends for a long time, starting as a teenager. It was almost like getting serious with a friend, like a friend who you’d always kind of love like you had this best friend, and then one day you looked at them differently, and it was like “Wow…”
There’s one booth in particular that I was using pretty much every day, and it was my responsibility to keep its water and chemicals topped off. I had sort of free rein of the booth, and…
What was it called?
It’s a model 11.
It’s not like the boxy photo booths that we think of today; it was from the early ’50. Really beautiful cursive signage on the side… It’s all mint green, which is one of my favorite colors anyway. Beautiful red finish to the wood in the booth. The back isn’t flat, the back is rounded so you can really push your whole body into the back of it and take photos, much further depth of field than the average photo booths.
The camera was super, super sharp. I learned how to use this machine really well and I learned what the ideal temperature and conditions were for it to take the best photos possible, and it just felt like when I took photos in it we were really in sync.
It felt like when I was taking really good pictures in it, it kind of had that feeling like “Hey, yeah! Way to go, team! We did this together!” It wasn’t a solo activity. The booth – I think of it as a major collaborator.
I kind of look back on that period and I’m sad now, or kind of jealous of how easy it was to be so pleased. I could be on top of the world because of a cool experiment we did with some photo booth chemicals and a new type of color paper, and the photos came out in a reversed pallet or whatever, and I would be just so thrilled, and that was like the coolest thing that happened to me that week.
I have definitely been turned on by the experience of using photo booths. It’s not like I look at a photo booth and I’m instantly turned on – they’re not inherently sexy to me – but the act of using a photo booth, especially when the photos are good and everything is syncing up nicely and it’s working really well, can definitely be an arousing experience for me.
When I moved to Montreal – I did actually date somebody for a while when I first moved here, that my sister introduced me to.
The first time I really noticed how photo booths interfered with my relationships with actual people was while having sex with him, and I started very consistently always seeing photo booth – not the pictures, but the actual machines – whenever I was climaxing or we were doing romantic stuff.
Pretty consistently. Maybe not every time, but it was a regular occurrence, yeah.
I was just falling in love, so it all felt really good. There was nothing about it that felt weird. But I knew it must have also been weird, because at that same time I felt compelled to look up people who fall in love with objects, and I watched this documentary about objectum sexuality, or like “objectophiles” as they’re sometimes called.
This documentary was like horrifying, really… It did not paint these people in a good light, and then immediately I was like “I’m not like that and I don’t wanna be one of them.” But I also am reminded of this woman that I know in the photo booth community who’s like “I’m not a hoarder like one of those hoarders on TV. Those shows are horrific”, and then I went to her house and I was like “Oh well, she’s a hoarder.” So when I say I’m not an objectum sexual I also know that I’m saying that, and… Yeah. Anyway…
I lead mostly a celibate life by choice. I don’t like how falling in love with somebody changes me. Whenever I start to fall for somebody, it feels like I’m slowly being poisoned, you know? The chemicals in your body start actually changing and shifting as you’re becoming more intimate with somebody and swapping saliva and messing your brain up with having orgasms.
When I do start to fall for somebody, it just feels like I’m getting drugged and I’m losing sight of who I am…
In a bad way.
Yeah, in a really bad way. Within 20 minutes of like imagined how we’re gonna retire, and then it’s foreplaying and stuff. It moves pretty fast. I try people on mentally all the time.
The last person that I had a regular sexual relationship with I just got no work done that entire time, and I was constantly blowing off deadlines and project schedules so that I could just drop everything and have sex.
But that’s great!
It was kind of awful… It was the worst! I got nothing done. [laughter]
Whenever I’ve been in a relationship with somebody, though I can tell they’re feeling things back at me, I know that the feelings I have for them are things I’m creating for myself anyway.
Despite the fact that there’s two people making that relationship happen, I only will ever know my experience of that relationship, so in that way it’s always sort of one-sided.
With my relationship with photo booths I don’t really see it any differently. I’m loving them, and from my experience it feels like they’re loving me back. I don’t really need anything more than that to feel like it’s a valid relationship.
I know what a psychologist would say about this kind of attraction and attention, I think.
What would they say?
[laughs] I don’t know, they’d probably say that you’re projecting some feelings of like you never wanna love anyone again or you never wanna be loved by anyone again onto an object, because it’s far safer and because it won’t break your heart the same way a human would, or something like that… Which I don’t know that there’s truth to that. However, I feel that when I’m using a photo booth, they know that I’m a friend of theirs, and that there’s a sort of language that we’re using that goes way deeper and far beyond actual language, where they get what I’m putting out and they get who’s using them. They know that it’s a special person using them, so we’re gonna work on taking these photos together.
What was it like in Chicago?
[laughs] This is so funny to say on the radio… Okay, so there were times when I was the last person to leave the studio, and so I would lock everything up and I would use the photo booth just by myself. I don’t know how to put this in a way… I’m so sorry to my friends in Chicago, who are like “Oh, god…” [laughter] Yeah, from my perception of what was happening and from how I felt, I felt like I was having sex with a photo booth in the way that it would make sense to have sex with an inanimate object.
It wasn’t about like being risqué or shock value or anything, it was just about me and the photo booth, and it felt very intimate and it felt amazing, and I felt very understood and very well taken care of by my lover.
I had noticed of course that photo booths have been disappearing for quite a while, but I didn’t really understand the extent that they were gonna be gone-gone relatively soon. I think as like a teenager who was obsessed with using photo booths I had always just imagined that I would always be able to take pictures this way and use photo booths with my kids, that kind of thing. I finally learned in 2012 how short-lived the industry would be.
In Canada there’s a handful of color photo booths that are left, but they’ll be gone pretty soon, like within at most six months, probably closer to two or three. And those are pretty much just left in Montreal, as far as I know, because the company that runs all those photo booths is based here in Montreal. So there’s about ten left in the metro systems.
Now when I visit photo booths the feeling is like, there’s so few left to visit that it’s more like I’m visiting a sick friend, and I’m happy to get this much more time with him. I can still have that fun, playful experience with a photo booth, but a lot of the time it feels really like we’re just hanging on to something before they go.
The photo booths that are left are in pretty public spaces, which definitely changes how I use them. So it feels less about us. It’s kind of like visiting a friend in their hospital room with a nurse in the room. Sometimes when I think about it I still will get very bothered and cry. I’m a 30-year-old woman crying about these machines leaving…
It’s just so sad to me that at a certain point in my life I am never going to be able to continue this tradition of documenting my life this way.
We are in the Place-d’Armes metro station. We’re gonna go down these steps and see if the booth is still there or not.
What kind of booth is it?
I can’t remember if it’s a 17P or a 17C. It’s the same model, it’s just a different number for the same thing. It’s a very standard Canadian color photo booth.
My stomach is like tightening right now… It’s still there. Yay!
* * *
Okay, we’ll take two strips. For the first one we’ll do a similar game to what we did yesterday where we called that “animals”, but we’ll say any word, and then each of us will react to whatever word it is.
So think of two words and keep them to yourself. Okay, I have two words; do you have two words?
Okay, so I’ll say the first one, you say the second one, I’ll say the third, you’ll say the fourth.
Sounds great. I don’t actually have my two words, but it’s fine.
[laughs] Okay… The first word is “party.” We have to look like partying! [laughter]
Okay, Roman Mars.
Oh, um… Rollercoaster!
Oh, sure… [laughter] Roman Mars… That’s the first time anyone has ever used Roman Mars in this booth. I was gonna say a different word altogether, but then I felt it was gonna be too similar to my Roman Mars look, so… I was gonna say “computer.”
You hear that, Roman? You’re a goddamn computer. [laughter]