How photo booth magic survives in the era of selfies

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Sam Pidilla and Violeta Tayeh strike a spirited pose inside a photo booth during an international convention of photo booth enthusiast in Chicago. Photo: David Pierini/Cult of Mac
Sam Padilla and Violeta Tayeh strike a spirited pose inside a photo booth during an international convention of photo booth enthusiasts in Chicago. Photo: David Pierini/Cult of Mac

Anatol Josephwitz passed the time in a Siberian prison camp and ignored the bitter cold by imagining an automated photography machine he had not yet invented.

Nearly 95 years later, the photo booth is as tough a survivor as its inventor.

Photo booth adventurers across many generations have described a magic that takes place when the curtain is drawn and the camera is awakened by placing a few coins in a slot. Inhibitions fall and an authentic inner self emerges on a strip of four photos. Best friends smash their faces together, a girl on a boy’s lap gives him his first kiss, and a wide-eyed college kid proudly mugs for a shot that will get pasted into a first passport.

Many of the so-called dip-and-dunk chemical machines, the kind found in arcades, amusement parks and bus stations, are disappearing, but replacing them are booths with digital cameras and dye-sublimation printers.

This museum will have you seeing dead people

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A & A Studios, Chicago
Chicago's A & A Studios is home to the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice, which houses a most unusual photo collection. Photo: David Pierini/Cult of Mac

My little red-haired niece approached the casket with a single flower and placed it with the father she looks so much like.

I raised my camera to my eye and made a picture.

Though secure with my reasons for snapping the photo, I understood how taboo this could seem to others. I never made a print to pass around or display. I look at the photo now, 10 years later, and get reacquainted with grief, struck by a visceral appreciation for a chapter that continues to unfold in my family story.

That picture was a fading memory until my recent trip to the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice in Chicago, a collection of more than 2,000 postmortem photographs and funerary ephemera.