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The Vintage Selfie - Berlin’s Photoautomat Booths. PART I

Rediscovering the Beauty of Vintage Photography

Berlin, 2004: A project was started to bring the fifties and sixties back to life on a global scale. Photoautomat grew from a simple idea to restore and maintain the original black and white photo booths in a world that had forgotten, but since embraced the quality and nostalgia of these classic photographs.

These creative and beautiful pictures originated from a time way before the likes of Ellen DeGeneres were unashamedly getting long-armed celebrity chums to photograph themselves with other A-listers. A time when taking pictures of yourself, with or without Brad Pitt et al, wasn't necessarily considered a particularly cool or sexy thing to do.

Twitter-breaking Oscar selfies aside, this photographic phenomenon appears to have caught on due to social media 'look at me' sites. However, a quick delve through the archives and a cheeky jaunt into Germany unveils a slightly different picture. Imagine a time without sticks attached to phones (currently banned at certain US attractions), before the the word ‘selfie’ made it into Oxford Dictionaries or was pronounced ‘Word of the Year for 2013’.

The Vintage Selfie

Photo booths, usually found at airports, train stations and the odd mall here and there, have been seeing a social resurgence, laying claim to being the original orchestrator of self portraiture in photographic form, aka: the vintage selfie.

Berlin especially, has become home of the urban photo booth and the pioneer for worldwide revival of the analogue photo booth. If you think the main visitors behind the black curtain are unsmiling passport photo seekers, then think again, because as with everything in Germany's capital city, Photoautomat booths are a haven for those seeking to take a step back in time.

The Analogue Photo Booth Makes a Comeback

Coin-operated, temporarily private and strangely erotic best describes the appeal of the analogue photo booth’s resurgence in Berlin. You might well have to get in line for your set of 4 black and white shots.

Although there are a fair few photo booth hire companies working the wedding and corporate party scene in the UK, you can trust the Germans to do things properly. With Berlin currently home to 25 outdoor Photoautomat booths, it begs the question “Where on earth have they come from?”

The Photoautomat booths are popular because they provide the clear precision of high quality photography that people love. They are in fact more expensive to run than digital equipment, being original machines restored to their full glory. This was the main reason analogue machines were originally replaced - not to improve quality, but to turn a profit.

The Creative Visionaries Behind Photoautomat

To find out more you need to pull back the curtains concealing the minds of entrepreneurs Asger Doenst and Ole Kretschmann, the two social photo-loving reprobates responsible for reviving an industry that was pretty much dead and buried.

Inspired by the wide open spaces of Berlin, the diverse subculture of the early 2000s, and of course the excellent quality of black and white prints, Doenst and Kretschmann undertook a unique social experiment. One that would lead them on a path to reigniting a passion for intimate photography; the catalyst for many young German Photoautomat booth users today.

It goes without saying that back in the 60's, things were very different in Germany from the rest of Europe. For a couple to seek refuge from the world and capture a few seconds of affection on film must have been a fairly big deal, as with having a precious keepsake to lock away and treasure forever.

A New Medium for Creative Photography

These days the photo booths that Doenst and Kretschmann have lovingly restored from their dilapidated 60's state have brought a new kind of social pull for people of all ages and backgrounds in Berlin. Filmmakers, art lovers and musicians alike are all discovering this new medium for creative inspiration.

All you need for a great looking strip of four black and white photos, that stays lightfast for 100 years is just Є2! That's cheaper than chips with or without that crazy German mayonnaise. So, if it's not for the money, why are Doenst and Kretschmann going to all this trouble? Simply because they know the value of truly creative photography.

Photoautomat as a Vintage Icon

From the first booth lovingly restored on Rosenthaler Platz, the pair have seen the Photoautomat phenomenon take shape. The magical transformation of the one and a half square metre cabin into a vintage icon, rejuvenated from what was once a desolate spot punks frequented for a piss, told them they were onto something special.

As more and more vintage photo booths were recovered from the dumpsters and warehouses they had been abandoned in, and duly restored, the need for private plots to situate them became a slight stumbling block due to the ever-increasing gentrification of East Berlin. Fortunately for the aid of friends and family members, slowly the project grew into what it is today.

Keeping the booths in working order is one of the practical sides of the business  but the guys aren't averse to getting their hands covered in machine grease; they're more than happy rolling up their sleeves and taking on the role of engineers.

Whilst undertaking such a mending task, Kretschmann recalls a time in KaterHolzig where he discovered just what the photo booth users had been up to, retrieving almost three quarters of strips  from the machine of a kissing couple in their young 70’s!

It's just this sort of discovery that continues to inspire and capture the imaginations of Doenst and Kretschmann. With more and more of these machines restored, they are relishing in the joy of bringing original photographic art back to life, instead of just providing a fake “retro” service like so many others.

So if you're inter-railing, backpacking around Europe or you’ve just landed, keep your eyes peeled for Photoautomat booths as there's seemingly no better way to record the moment of your visit.  Pull across the curtain, insert a couple of Euros, wait for the flash and say cheese!

Justin Merino