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Photoautomat for the People: Berlin. Part II

 

In the streets of Berlin, for tourists and locals alike, the sight of the photo booths from the ‘50s and ‘60s are more than nostalgia. They’re an institution. After a decade since the first refurbished booth was resurrected, they’re as popular as ever.

In an era when it’s possible to take a photo of yourself anywhere, and apply the proper filter to match the moment then send it to the world, Photoautomats sit in a strange spot that’s part outdated and part retro. Walking into someone’s Kreuzberg or Neukolln flat and finding a strip of four photos pinned to the wall is essentially expected. If the walls are missing one it’s almost a tell tale sign of your host being new to Berlin.

It’s been suggested that the selfie gives control back to the subject to project the way they want to be seen to the world. The ease of being able to take a photo with friends anywhere around the city, and having your own background, any of the many monuments in Berlin, then uploading it to the internet. That’s not possible with one of these photo booths.

 

So why do the Photoautomats continue to be so popular on such a large scale?

 

Photoautomats present the opposite opportunity. Although there’s well over twenty around the city, you still have to put in the effort to find the small booth, get to it and pull the curtain. Your four photos are printed onto one strip unable to be shared digitally. The limitations of the booth cause it to be an event. That in itself might be the attraction.

Another suggested reason is the hint of nostalgia that brings authenticity with it. There’s a romanticism of the past, the polaroid type photo, that makes it more of a tangible experience. Never mind the fact that this actually is more physically real. It can be held. It can be passed around. It’s an experience. It’s a ceremony. Sure, it’s possible to remember taking a selfie on a night out with friends, but it’s much more likely that you’d remember finding the photo booth and sliding in behind the curtain then waiting for the four shots to be developed.

Essentially, the truth is that there’s more to these photo booths than simply capturing a self portrait.

Whatever the reason for their popularity, it doesn’t matter much to the duo behind the whole operation. The machine was, and still is, the initial fascination. The Photoautomat give a certain type of photo quality that is unique to the booths. The process of going to the photo booth to have a photo taken, to have the smell of the developing chemicals, is its own adventure.

It’s the limitations of the small space and the black and white aspect give the whole experience a unique quality. The analogue nature of the machines means maintenance is an ongoing task including refilling the black and white developing chemicals.

“we used one of the remaining black and white analogue booths in switzerland. the quality of the analogue black and white photo is stunning,” explained founder ole kretschmann. “we thought the booth as an object within the city space was amazing. it’s both public and intimate, a place of joy and magic. we thought it was a great machine to bring to berlin.”

and that’s exactly what they did. they found the automats and restored them, bringing back the booths to their former glory days. now it’s over a decade since the first one settled onto the berlin streets.

another core point of the photo booths is that they are in the street. or, as the team explain in a 2014 video, they’re in “dangerous places.” they’re accessible in open areas where people walk past like warschauer brücke – where the only colour booth can be found – mauerpark, kottbusser and almost anywhere else where the colourful nightlife of berlin can be found. in their own words, “anything can happen.”

the booths can be in all sorts of shape by the time they’re taken to the photoautomat shop for a new lease of life. the photoautomat team might be more of a resurrection than merely restoration. they can be heading for the landfill, filled with nesting animals or worse. kretschmann declines to comment on the worst one they’ve found, saying simply, “the worst you can imagine. the machines were doomed to end at the landfill.”

now they’ve spread the joy of these photo booths through berlin, hamburg, leipzig and cologne, as well as through europe in cities including london and florence.

Jason Kenny