The growth in digital photography has spawned several throwbacks, but perhaps none are more delightful than a visit to an old-school photo booth, known as a Photoautomat in Germany.
The German capital Berlin boasts 11 such booths, but they are slowly spreading out, from the boozy garden at London’s Cargo club, to the cool cement interior of the Palais de Tokyo art gallery in Paris. What began as a small-scale passion project by two unassuming Berliners has become the latest vogue in retro photography.
“I wasn’t thinking about a revival in analogue photography – but there is clearly some kind of movement because lots of people have been inspired by what we started,” co-founder Asger Doenst told The Local recently.
Doenst and his friend Ole Kretschmann, both Berliners by birth, came up with the idea of buying and restoring an old analogue photo booth in 2003. But it wasn’t until two years later – after a trip to Zurich to find a machine and six months of learning how to use it through restoration – that the first Photoautomat was stationed at the city’s central Rosenthaler Platz intersection.
For a mere €2, anyone can squeeze into the tiny booth, close the curtain, mug for four pops of the flash and wait for their strip of black and white shots to emerge. The experience, imbued with nostalgia, proved quite popular among locals.
“The initial idea was just for a single machine,” explained Doenst. “There was no grand plan to turn this into a large project, just to renovate this one machine, and even finding the original machines was an accident.”
But soon friends of Doenst and Kretschmann wanted to be part of the project.
The result is a network of booths across Germany and a growing number abroad – a map of their friendships across Europe.
“It’s just a process of cooperation between us and our friends in these other cities. Because we all work on the project for free, the connections are personal, not about business,” Doenst said, adding that the friends plan to keep it that way.
But this doesn’t stop a steady stream of emails and phone calls about offers for money-making expansion schemes, he said.
Labour of love
While the duo may maintain the booths without pay, that doesn’t mean it’s not a considerable amount of work.
“There’s always more to do,” Doenst said. “We have to have a constant supply of spare parts. We cannot buy them or order them, we have to repair them.”
Doenst works as a freelance cameraman, and Kretschmann as a carpenter, so together they have assembled enough knowledge to keep the machines in working order. But the learning curve was steep.
“There’s no one to call and no manual to consult,” Doenst said.
Their workshop in Berlin, also aided by three other volunteers, sends one person out each day to check the booths, which always means giving them a good scrub.
“They get a pretty disgusting here in Berlin, because, well, it’s Berlin – so daily
cleaning is pretty important,” he laughed.
The film and developer also need to be changed regularly to ensure the machines don’t run dry.
And as with Polaroids, the film is special. With no negative produced, each strip is an original.
But problems with sourcing the film risk killing off the project. Doenst and Kretschmann are currently putting in a lot of legwork to try and find a firm which can produce it indefinitely.
Another challenge is the search for new booth locations as Berlin continues its post-reunification gentrification. The workshop is frequently on the lookout, scouring for new sites in anticipation that current locations will be uprooted for a new hotel or housing development.
Though the Photoautomat booths have to adapt to Berlin’s ever-shifting landscape, Doenst said he feels that the idea is on that could only have been born in German capital.
“The thing is that there is plenty of space for the booths here, you’ll notice that in London or Paris, for example, all of the machines are in museums or in private spaces. But here in Berlin there are in public, on the street.”