Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Q & A with Alice Christine Walker

Alice Christine Walker is a photographer based in Portland.

BA: Tell me about your photobooth pictures. How/when did you get started?

ACW: My first photobooth pictures were back in high school when I lived in London. 

You went to high school in London? What brought you there as a kid?

A typical story. My parent's job was transferred to the U.K. They had the analog booths at train stations and my friends and I would take pictures as we traveled in and out of the city. I still have all those strips. When I moved Portland 10 years ago, I started noticing the B&W booths at bars around town and used the booths in the traditional way, capturing pictures with friends during boozy nights in bars.

Every year I would go to the Ace Hotel on my birthday and started incorporating the element of time into my images, documenting my aging. It wasn't until one night at The Florida Room when I conceptualized a story arc with a strip did I realize the photobooth could be more than pictures with friends.

When and how did you transition into pieces incorporating multiple strips together?

The first time I made a multiple image strip was on a trip to Italy. I found an analog photobooth randomly on the streets. Me and my partner at the time, conceptualized a piece where we interacted in two strips side by side.  It hasn't been until recently that I have really pushed the number of strips I've used to make a piece.

In these initial photos was there much planning or staging? Or just chance moments?

There has always been a high degree of planning and staging. This includes props, order of people and facial expressions to name a few variables. The flashes happen so fast, I had to visualize what I want the outcome to be in order to be ready for the speed of the booth.

What is the gap between photos? 

It is about 2-3 seconds between photos.

Is it possible to tinker with the machines to make that gap longer?

I am sure there is a way to make the time between longer but the camera shutter can be fickle and I try not to disrupt it.

Bene Gesserit

Portland is a big center for photobooths. Is that true of London too? Or was it true there 10 years ago?

I am not up to date on where there are analog booths in London anymore but I have seen first hand the chemically processed booths replaced by digital ones all around the world. There are still instant photo machines in train stations, grocery stores, etc all over Europe and the UK but they are marketed as "passport photo booths". The same thing is happening in Portland. The city used to have twice as many as they do now. However most locations have been poached by a competing company's digital booths.

(Florida Room)
Same story as record jukeboxes and old school arcade games. They’re mostly gone from public life.

This is the best resource I have found to help locate analog booths around the world.

Maybe this is a dumb question but what does an analog photobooth offer that a digital one doesn't?

There is a basic difference in size and shape. The analog photobooth was designed as a dip and dunk method in chemical baths with special paper to produce a positive image. Behind that door is a machine in a darkroom with a complex mechanical process. It can only produce a vertical set of 4 images.

Behind the door of a digital booth is a digital camera and a digital printer. The options for digital are vast in comparison, vertical versus horizontal or 2x2. Color or B/W. You can artificially manipulate the picture by adding objects or retake the image if you don't like it. It can be argued that the digital one actually offers "more" than analog.  But analog has the origins of the history of photography behind it. The same irrational, emotional and somewhat intangible magic quality that keeps photographers using film and printing in a darkroom.

For my project, I embrace the analog with flaws in the mechanical and chemical process. These flaws of degraded chemicals or misfired camera shutters don't exist with digital.

We should probably mention at this point that you are Portland's photobooth guru. You handle all the chemicals in the city's booths and keep them running smoothly.

Haha! Yes, that's true. I approach the photobooth from the unique position of being the darkroom photographer and the subject. Well, mechanic/photographer...

The main photobooth I use is at Blue Sky. The strips smell like fixer when they come out. I don't think any digital photobooth can replicate that smell, but maybe I'm wrong.

No digital booth could ever replicate that smell!

Not yet. I bet some programmer somewhere is working on it.

Haha! I can image someone trying to make printer ink smell like rotten eggs.

On Being A Woman

So analog photobooths are fading away, and you are their main caretaker in Portland during this change. How much of your project is inspired by a sense of nostalgia, and/or trying to preserve this disappearing technology?

Nostalgia and preservation are both of the utmost importance to me. There is a division that is true in all photography, for some people what is important are the ends and not the means. Therefore it doesn't matter if an image was made using chemical process or digitally.

I am not one of those people. The means and the ends both matter to me. At this moment in time, the mechanical parts that still exist for the analog photobooths are all that are left over from the 20th century. Although once abundant, there was a large purge of these machines into scrap yards where there were destroyed. There are very few of these machines left and fewer people who know how to keep them working. I am one of those people now. Analog photobooths are also at risk of losing the one Russian supply source for paper as well as fewer companies making the chemicals. It is true that one day, supplies/parts might dry up and they will just fade away.

Oh wait, I didn't realize the paper and chemicals were disappearing too. Isn't it just normal photo paper and chemicals? Or is there something different?

Yes, the paper and chemicals are a different process than working from a negative. The camera exposes the image directly onto the paper so in the chemical processing you need to produce a direct positive. The paper is special in its size (it is cut to fit into the film magazine and to fit into the strip holders for the chemical baths) but also unique in that you can put it through a special chemical reversal bath and have the positive image appear.

Wondering out loud…. How would that paper react if treated like normal paper? Say you exposed it to a negative in the darkroom and then developed in D-76?

I have these questions too and my goal is to start experimenting in the darkroom soon!

Hmm, ok. I'm learning something here. How did the paper manufacturer happen to be Russian? Were the booths made there? Or what's the connection?

Anatol Josepho with Terrier
Unfortunately I think it is the same story that has played out with many analog products. Demand decreases and companies stop making a profit or there are regulations that change the availability or cost to make a product so the company stops production. Polaroid, Kodak, etc have all had to adapt. I'm sure there were booths made in Russia but most booths in the west were made in the United Kingdom or the US. A company in Russia just happens to be the only company still making the special paper and cutting it to the specific size. Although it should be noted Anatol Josepho, the inventor of the photobooth, is Russian. He created the first photobooth in NYC.

What else can you tell me about him?

This is directly from online but I think it is more concise than I can be! The Photomaton took years to create, as Josepho tinkered with chemical formulas in hopes of finding a faster-developing process while maintaining picture quality. After running a successful photography studio in Shanghai, Josepho decided to relocate to America to secure financial backers to build his machine. He later raised $11,000 (approximately $150,000 these days), building the first Photomaton in midtown Manhattan and opening for business in 1925. Lines quickly wrapped around the block, with as many as 7,500 people a day paying a quarter for a strip of eight photographs (that's $1,875 a day in 1925 or more than $25,000 in 2017 dollars.) The Photomaton became known as Broadway's Greatest Quarter-Snatcher.

I hope the booths can hang on.

Me too!!!

So your project is a race against time. 

In both senses! I am racing against the obsolesce of these analog machines as well racing against the speed of flashes in the booth.

Tell me about the images you're making. How would you describe them? And how did you develop the style you have now from the photos you made in your initial photobooth experiences?

There are so many limitations when working with the photobooth. I find myself challenged and really pushed to my creative limits trying to break through those limitations while embracing the uniqueness of the medium. My style has come from trying to overcome those limitations.

Chris Rauschenberg, a great local photographer you may know, has a quote about that. Paraphrasing, it is something to the effect of Limitations are essential for artists. They spur creativity.


I agree with Chris! He actually gave me the name for the Instagram account I will be using to show some photobooth work: PhotoBooth Strip Club. Perfect for Portland right?!

I am making a variety of images. Some images use the basic format of four vertical images to tell a story. I am using multiple strips to build pattern and repetition to create a larger image. I am exploring the idea of future obsolescence to talk about consumerism in our society and in my life. I am making art that talks about my own experiences of being a woman in Western society and the pressure of beauty. I am exploring the freedom of identity and anonymity that happens behind the curtain. My work is now art where as before it was documenting a moment or friendship.

Yikes, that's a lot to unpack. Did you wind up buying your own photobooth yet. 

I absolutely would like to own my own booth one day but they are very hard to find in working order with all the parts. There are 10 booths left in the Portland area. As part of my maintenance route I test each photobooth once a week. If adjustments need to be made I will test it twice. I am making my art one strip at a time over weeks and months. Each booth is slightly different so I am intentional about which concepts I am working on in which booths. It's a slow process.

So you only shoot one strip per week in each booth? But if you're working a certain topic you might want to shoot multiple strips in one session, no? Or does that wear down the machines or something?

It doesn't wear down there machines but it does wear down the profits for the company that I work for! So yes, I am only shooting one strip per week in each booth. After changing the chemistry or the film magazine I do have to shoot multiple strips to make sure the booth is ready for the next paying customer. I use those opportunities to make multiple strips on a certain topic. 

Is it too technical to ask which photos work best in which booths? What are examples of some of the differences between booths?

Not technical at all! The backgrounds are different. Some curtains you can change and some are set designs. The size of the booths are slightly different so one might have a larger field of view than another. Some cameras have a different focal length than others. Technically, the flash strengths might be different in different booths, and in all the booths the chemicals are always at different points in their life span. Through working with all the booths, each one has a slightly different personality to me. I would say that is something I noticed and loved about photo booths from the start. I have always sought out as many booths as I could find to try them out and thus have my favorites.

If you had to pick one in Portland, which one is your favorite?

Probably the Cruzroom Annex.  The background is a black reptile texture and the strip is slightly larger than the rest.

Do you know of other photographers currently making work with photobooths?

Jared Bark in NYC still has shows and I believe is still making work. Daniel Minnick is more contemporary and I find his work incredibly inspiring but I do not know if he has made work in a few years. I heard rumors that there is a female photographer in Portland who owns her own booth and has been making work but I have not found her yet.

If she's out there, seems worth tracking down.

I agree! I secretly hoped it was photobooth artist Jan Wenzel but I think she lives in Germany. Photobooth.net is another great resource for the purpose of researching photobooth artists. I think great art is being made in these booths every day but working with them as your main medium can be cost prohibitive.

I found Jared Bark's book in the local university library and we've talked about him. He made photobooth work in the 1970s and I think there was a miniboom in that period of photographers doing photobooth stuff. What do you think inspired that boom? And are we in the midst of another (smaller) one? Or am I just imagining both booms?

Photobooths were more affordable in the 1970s. You hear stories of Warhol arriving with a model and rolls of quarters to a booth in NYC and taking it over. Pop art was the trend in the 70s which gave cultural validation to instant art like the photobooth. I would call it a boom. I would love for us to be in another boom now. I might be in the middle of it but I can't see it from the outside? I feel that in our individualist culture everyone is try to be unique as possible. The photobooth might be playing into that as access to the medium is not readily available to all photographers.

Has the work of these prior artists been influential for your own work? Or did you discover those folks later, after you'd already gone down the photobooth rabbit hole?

I discovered most folks after I went down the rabbit hole.  Art history is important and artist don't exist in a bubble.

I have no idea if we're in a boom, but for whatever reason Jared Bark is getting a new wave of attention, and you're doing your thing, and photobooths seem like a thing. So I dunno.

What goes around comes back around. I am glad Jared is getting due recognition.

I'm curious about the logistics of shooting with a photobooth. It seems like a chancy process, and also irreversible just like any analog tool. There's no healing brush. What is your general hit ratio? I mean, how many strips do you usually wind up tossing for every one that works out?

Optical Evolution

I find my mood going into the photo booth affects my hit ratio more so than anything else.  Some days it is just a job and I sit and look into the camera blankly with a grumpy face. As I am in the process of beginning to show and share my work I am uncertain how the world will respond to it. Like all art, I know what has significance and meaning to me but that might be very different than what society values or deems worthy. I keep all the strips and hope that even the failures can be used in totality to create a successful piece.

Between Places
Another trait of photobooth pictures is that you're always work in series. You've got to think about how frames interact with each other, in the same strip and also in multiple strips. Which seems like a different approach than most photography. I'm not sure if that's a question or maybe I'm just making an observation.

I'd say that is a great observation and there is a small degree of luck. I've included a couple pieces where you can observe my planning. Often I have to bring a note pad into the booth to keep straight which direction I should be looking etc.

I looked for some of your photobooth pictures online but couldn't find any. Is that because it's still in the beginning stages? Or are you holding it back for some specific time or project?

Honestly, I am still trying to figure out how to share it. Also, many of the larger pieces are still in process.  I will be updating my website this month to have a page dedicated to my photobooth work. I will also be debuting most of it in September in the rear gallery at Blackfish Gallery in Portland.

Cool, looking forward to that. What about right now with the Coronavirus pandemic? What's been the impact on photobooths?

It's been a wild two weeks. I actually had to shut down all the booths during this quarantine period so no art is being made right now. 

For the immediate future, I am in the same boat as a lot of people. Until bars and restaurants open again, the booths will stay off.  There were a couple booths that we tried to keep open like the Ace hotel but even they have decided to close until May 1st.  

Also, because the photobooth development process is darkroom based, the chemicals will degrade naturally if left sitting for an extended period of time.  In addition, with Portland's shelter-in-place, photobooth maintenance should not be considered essential services.  So I'm hanging tight and focusing my creative energy on my other photography work. I am going to start experimenting with photobooth chemicals and regular darkroom paper.

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