The history of photobooths

The photobooth has a long history as a profitable device. Its first successful owners and operators made themselves rich by being at the forefront of photographic technology. I've taken some time over the past few weeks to put together a simple to read history of the photobooth that may be interesting to the people who own and operate one today.



Photography itself was first successfully executed in 1826, and it took until 1889 for the first automated photo taking system to spring up. The "automatic" process required an entire room and a staff of almost 20 at the Paris World's Fair that year. The systems continued to be refined over the decades, with the first breakthrough coming 36 years later.

It would take until 1925 for Anatol Josephewitz to patent a machine that took automatic photographs. This machine was the first to resemble the old enclosed photobooths that we think of today. Built in Harlem, this "Photomaton" cost 25 cents ($3.50 in today's money) to take eight pictures. These pictures were then printed onto strips, in a process that took just over eight minutes.

Anatol Josephewitz opened a studio in Times Square where people could come and take pictures in the Photomaton, and he was taking over 7,000 photos a day. Lines stretched out the door, and he was open until 4 AM. A member of the team that founded the American Red Cross bought the patent rights to the machine for $1,000,000, which would be equivalent to 14 million today.

The new owners of the Photomaton rights took the design to a factory in Queens and started mass productions. Eventually, investors took the idea around the world, and it is this design that informed photobooths for almost 90 years.

The Photomaton was challenged in business by many competitors, but the first to change the game was the Photomatic of William Rabkin. Rabkin reduced the amount of images from eight to four, which is why we still have four images on 2x6 strips today! His company was eventually outdone by one called Auto-Photo, which stopped trying to sell the booths and started renting them to department stores and malls. 

In the 50's, everybody took photos in a photobooth. Check out the slider below to see JFK and Jackie Kennedy on their honeymoon, Elvis as a young (and thin!) man, and Audrey Hepburn with her co-stars from the movie that made her a household name. 

It was the Polaroid itself that slowed the photobooth industry in the 70's, as the ability to take larger pictures, of varying backgrounds, and have them printed instantly, was revolutionary. These prints meant that the photobooth was, for a time, on the decline. Users began to think of them as passport photo taking tools, but that would change quickly.

Digital technology brought a revolution to photobooths, as computers allowed the Japanese company behind Sonic the Hedgehog to create the sticker booths known as purikura. These booths proved incredibly popular with younger customers, and brought a revival to photobooth rentals for parties.

The photobooth began to advance in technology rapidly enough to be portable, with large enclosures popping up at weddings through the early 2000's. These huge boxes were usually transported on a trailer, and setup required a team of four or five. Using computers, they were able to take digital photos and print them quickly on site. Technology continued to press forward, and innovation resulted in the creation of Photobooth Supply Co.

Photobooth Supply Co. was the first company to successfully offer open booths to the masses. What started as a small DIY project became an international brand, known for consistent inventiveness. These booths no longer required a curtain or a heavy setup, and responded to the new world of social media. Many patrons have found themselves sharing an image to Facebook or Instagram, rather than taking home a print in their wallet. 

These new photobooths have grown every year, and 2017 looks to be no different. With less than 50% of weddings featuring a photobooth, and more brand conscious corporations looking to use the photobooth as a marketing tool, the future will be bright if the technology can keep up with changes in demand. Users these days expect well designed templates and access to a host of internet enabled features.

No longer would eight pictures that took almost ten minutes to print be good enough! It will take a company truly thinking beyond the expected norms. 

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  • Audrey Hepburn and her co-stars in a photobooth.