Meags Fitzgerald talks 'Photobooth: A Biography'

You've seen them at amusement parks and train stations, and perhaps even glimpsed some makeshift ones at weddings and other large social functions. Photo booths have been a part of Americana for generations, despite digital technology threatening to make them a relic of yesteryear. Still, most of us give them little thought beyond the opportunity to get a quick picture taken.

Not so with Meags Fitzgerald. The Canadian artist has been obsessed with the technology, history and aesthetics of photo booths for years, and she's managed to turn her interest into a graphic novel, Photobooth: A Biography, which will be released in May by Conundrum Press. As you might expect, it delves deeply into the history of the device, its significance and what is being lost in the move to digital.

I interviewed Fitzgerald by email last week about her upcoming book and abiding love for this disappearing technology.

Christ Mautner: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from originally? How did you get interested in drawing and art? How did you discover comics, and what made you decide to try making your own? 

Meags Fitzgerald: I was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and I started writing and illustrating stories when I was about six. My dad took me and my siblings to his favorite comic shop every few weekends and bought us superhero comics, which I mostly loved to look at. In my late teens I read my first memoirs and journalistic graphic novels and fell in love with those genres. I’d thought about making my own graphic novel for many years but I wasn’t sure I had a story worth telling until Photobooth: A Biography.

How did you get interested in photo booths and their history? What made you decide to do a graphic novel on the subject?

I started using photo booths obsessively when I was teenager. In the book, I go in-depth about how I became addicted to photo booths and used them as a creative outlet. In 2005, the formative website Photobooth.net launched to promote vintage photo booths, and I discovered that there were other people like me around the world. As I got more involved in the international community I became interested in their rich history as well.

Initially I planned on making a very short nonfiction comic about vintage photo booths, but when I started the research, the project gained a lot of momentum and there was interest for a more comprehensive book. I received funding for travel expenses and later for my living expenses, so I was able to unearth new information and fully dedicate myself to the work.

How did the subject matter inform how you laid out the book? After all, photo strips can resemble comic panels after a fashion.

Comics are the perfect medium to talk about photo booths. By nature they’re both visual, sequential and narrative. They also both reside in the fringes of popular culture, so I think of them as kindred spirits.

What is it about photo booths that appeals to you? Why do you think they’ve managed to embed themselves in popular culture the way that they have?

Photo booths captured my attention has a teenager in a time before iPhones or Facebook, when it was still novel to carry around little pictures of yourself. As I’ve grown, photo booths have continued to appeal to me because they’re private sanctuaries in public spaces; they serve as theaters, time machines, confessionals and more. They have the unique quality of capturing the moment honestly.

The modern-day photo booth was invented in 1925 and was a huge and instant success. Photo booths made portraiture affordable and accessible. They were also private and their automated cameras didn’t discriminate against their users. Historically, they were important for documenting lower-class and marginalized people.  Their popularity spiked during World War II when everyone wanted keepsakes of their loved ones. Photo booths resonated with society at just the right times to become the icons they are. Today’s digital technology can’t compare to the intimate, tactical and one-of-a-kind nature of vintage photo booth pictures.

In the pages you sent, you touch on how photo-development technology has changed drastically and how that’s resulted in the destruction of a lot of equipment and booths that might have historical or at least a nostalgic value. Do you think something has been lost as we move towards an all-digital future? 

Absolutely. We’ve moved so quickly into the digital era and we trashed a lot of analog technology along the way without much foresight. Nearly all the photo booths from the mid-'60s and earlier are gone, but evidence of their existence fills photo albums across the globe. It’s unusual for an artifact to leave behind so much documentation of its legacy.

It seems like more and more photo booths are popping up at people’s weddings, graduations and other events. Do you see photo booths remaining popular or are they becoming more and more a relic of a bygone era?

The photo booths that you see today are mostly all digital booths or they aren’t actual booths at all but are makeshift photo stations. It’s great that photobooths have evolved and live on in spirit and I think this trend will continue. However, Photobooth: A Biography is specifically about vintage photo booths, which operate with analog technology and darkroom chemistry.

It’s not a coincidence that my book is coming out in 2014. It’s a pertinent time to talk about photo booths; there are several factors that in the next few years may cause their demise. I put all my other projects on hold so I could work solely on this book and get it out before they’re gone.

What was the biggest or most surprising thing you learned while working on this book? What was the most challenging thing?

There was a lot of surprising information; most of it pertains to the dark side of photo booths. For example, the mafia used photo booths (and other vending machines) as covers for their illegal dealings. You can read the book to learn the other dark secrets!

From a personal perspective, the most challenging material to write about is the sensitive and debated subject of darkroom chemicals. The active ingredient in the bleach that is used in photo booths is cancer-causing and hazardous to the environment. I have friends and know of people in the photo booth industry who are very ill. In the book, I’ve honored the privacy of these individuals but I still feel torn about advocating for the continued existence of chemical photo booths when I know they can be seriously harmful.

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