The Fotoautomat. Youre not a Berlin Hipster if you haven’t taken your picture in one of these machines.
The Fotoautomat has always been a part of Berlin (and the rest of Germany), hanging around near S-Bahn /U-Bahn and Train Stations, waiting for someone to have their Passport Picture taken or just to have a fun picture as a good memory. With Photographic Technology evolving, it seemed like these Photo Booths might die out like so many machines from my childhood (im looking at you coin operated cigarette machines and yellow phone booths) – but no! It looks like they are making a full blown comeback.
The Photoautomat – or is it Fotoautomat?
The concept of a Photo Booth dates all the way back to 1888, when William Pope and Edward Poole (from Baltimore, USA) filed a patent for an automated photography machine – which was never actually built. In 1889, the French Inventor T.E Enjalbert and the German Photographer Mathew Steffens constructed working machines, which turned out to be not reliable enough to be self-sufficient. The German Inventor Conrad Bernitt managed to build the first successful Photo Booth in 1890 in Hamburg. It is interesting to note that all these machines produced Ferrotypes (in simple terms – the positive images was directly created on a metallic plate). The first machine which managed to produce photos with a negative and positive process was invented by the German Carl Sasse in 1896.
Photo Booths as we know them today were invented by the Russian Immigrant Anatol Josepho in 1923 in New York. He produced a working prototype and presented it on Broadway, which turned out to be an instant success, despite the pictures taking 10 minutes to develop. In 1927, Josepho sold the US Rights to an investment group for 1 million dollars (and guaranteed himself royalties from then on).
With the introduction of Digital Cameras, most of the older Fotoautomaten were replaced with newer and quicker models. And that was that. Until someone realized that Black and White Photo strips are awesome.
Soon enough the machines started reappearing on the streets. For the price of 2 euros you get a strip of 4 photos, that smell like cabbage. Cabbage?
Well you see, these machines still operate with a mini chemical lab inside of them. After the photographic paper is exposed, it is then dipped in various chemical baths. This causes the rather odd cabbage smell.
They’ve proven so popular in Berlin (especially the one on the Kastanienallee, much to the ire of the locals) that they have begun to appear in other European cities such as Vienna, London and Florence.
There are currently 17 Fotoautomaten in Berlin (1 of them even being a color Photo Booth) and there’s a handy map from the photoautomat.de website to show you where you can get your next hipster fix.
Over time, ive stumbled across a whole host of empty photo strips (much like in the movie amelie) – and it took me a while to figure out what the deal was with them. Earlier this year, the misses, my younger brother and me were walking home late at night and stopped by the Photoautomat on Schönhauser Allee. One of the Photoautomat Technicians was busy servicing one of the machines and he let us have a good look inside and explained how a few things worked. He closed the machine, and set off a test run, checked if the flash worked and left.
And thats why we kept on finding the empty strips. I love these machines. I love film photography, and I love their novelty value. An added bonus: unlike German phone booths they are respectively clean and don’t smell like urine. And they don’t have little Russian babushkas sitting in them.