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The four minutes of anticipation

Interview with Sue Smallwood about her collection of photo booth pictures

Collectors & their collection vol. 1.

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

In the case of everyday imaging there is one particularly important actor we tend to forget about: the collector of these seemingly mundane images who dives deep into the realm of the vernacular and makes collecting a daily habit. The safekeeping of everyday images is one particularly interesting case: we have our family albums, our workplace archives, our national heritages and daily photorolls on our phones – but what happens to those images that do not illustrate any of these narratives? What happens to the images that due to the shifting personal interests become ownerless? Because despite the fact that we are deeply engaged in everyday imaging and crafting new images for ourselves, due to the repetitive nature of this image heritage vernacular photographs often end up ownerless.

The power of vernacular photography lies in its authenticity. We're drawn to the raw emotions and the everyday stories that resonate on a personal level. And thanks to the attentive and thoughtful collectors who carry out the task of safekeeping we are able to connect to never before seen photographs – even though we might not know anything about the original personal connection between the photograph and its previous owner.

Focusing on the collectors and safekeepers, Eidolon Journal starts a new series where we showcase a unique archive and collection every month!

In the first part of this new series we’ve talked to Sue Smallwood, whose collection of photo booth pictures captures raw emotions, offering glimpses into people's lives that we can all relate to.

Could you please tell us how your interest started in photo booth images and how many images did you collect during the years?

I am from the Photo-Booth generation! In the 1970s and 80s it was always a natural part of our teenage outings to cram ourselves into the nearest booth and take photos as a memento of the day, gig, or whatever we were up to. I probably only have 20 or 30 personal images saved from those days, including ones taken for our band’s ‘fanzines’. 

As well as this, I would often find strips of photos dropped on the ground or discarded near the booths. Even though they were images of strangers, I always found the different faces so mesmerising, and could imagine the fun they had in the booth, or the frustration of just missing the ‘pose’!  Of these I have over 200 (most of them coming from one single Photo-Me Booth in London’s Kings Cross station, from when I moved to the area in 1987).

If you needed to pinpoint the unique characteristics of photobooth photographs how would you describe them? How are they unique considering the wide array of everyday image making methods?

Well, I suppose there are some fixed elements, such as the blue or orange background curtains, the portrait format and the standard lighting. Given these confines - for those not just using the booth for a ‘straight’ shot - the creativity of poses could be quite impressive!  

I feel that the digital process of today's booths has taken away the sensory aspects that made the booths so much of an experience. I’m taking some words from my book to express what sums up the uniqueness of the analogue machines for me…       

I loved the ritual of the event. The freshness of entering an empty booth - its outside adorned with blown-up images of cheesy ‘ideal pose’ suggestions. Winding the circular stool up, or down, so that your head was perfectly framed; choosing the colour of backdrop curtain, usually orange or blue, or the plain white of the wall behind. Practising a few expressions, dropping in a few coins and aiming to time each of the four allotted poses to coincide with the blinding flash and pop of the light, as the camera loudly captured your image, ready or not. The four minutes of anticipation (it always felt much longer) outside the booth, while the images were processing, the faint smell of chemicals burbling around inside the machine, the plop of the strip of photos falling into the tray, the hot air blowing across to dry the wobbling print while you tried to get a glimpse of your latest achievement. Waving the image in the air for the next half hour trying to fully dry it, so that it didn’t stick to anything and become forever ruined.

Could you please tell us more about your collecting habits? When I think about photobooth photographs collecting them seems a nearly impossible task - as most of the people paid for the photographs leaving them behind without waiting for the magical moment when the slightly wet paper is dropped into the tray seems unlikely. Or is it not?

I am a bit of a magpie in general; I always thought of myself more of a hoarder rather than a collector! With regard to the bulk of the Photo booth collection - which I found at the Kings Cross booth as mentioned above - I think the booth must have been faulty and the photos would take far beyond the designated four minute to arrive, by which time the sitter probably had to rush off for a train, or had simply given up! On noticing this after a couple of days on my way home from work, I made a point of passing the booth almost every evening, and there was usually a treat of a handful of photos waiting for me! 

I had some very old photo albums so I often spent my evening arranging the photos - putting together images which I found sat best together, either visually or contextually. Being kept in the albums, they were well-preserved for the next few decades!

Aside from this particular fortuitous booth, people did often discard the images they didn’t want, so I would just find them lying around! They were not the kind of thing you would find at a junk shop or car boot sale as they were so ubiquitous at the time. 

I had a friend who worked in a branch of the high street retail store Woolworths, and she had collected a shoebox full of discarded photos from the store’s Photo booth, to give to me. But she then posted them to me at the wrong address, which was a huge disappointment. I have since spoken to someone else who worked in a Woolworths who also collected the photos that way. Sadly both of these collections no longer exist.

As a collector did you have an interest in any other form of everyday photography?

Throughout my childhood, and especially since being a graphic designer (for over 40 years) I have always enjoyed playing with images of one sort or another. I also delight in discovering everyday photography at car boot sales and jumble sales, of families or individuals, again especially when they are a little more on the dark or disconcerting side! I have not made a point of collecting those as such, but thinking about it, there are quite a few buried amongst my ‘treasures’ at home! Likewise, I didn’t set out to specifically collect Photo Booth images. It was really just another of my oddball personal projects, but became one of my favourite pastimes.

You mention in your foreword how the thrilling and playful act of taking photobooth photographs became part of the bureaucratic environment when we started to use them for far mundane purposes, such as taking passport photographs for ourselves. Can you see this shift from one attitude to another when you browse through your collection?

Yes, as I mentioned above, this was really so much part of our culture growing up, especially around the DIY Punk movement. However, my collection did not carry on past the early 90s, when I left the UK for a few years, and on my return there was not a photo booth to be found, and the more disappointing (and far more expensive to use) digital machines were introduced. So my particular collection is strictly from the analogue days, hence there’s not really a comparison to be had.'

A particular photobooth gives a glimpse into the society that lives its everyday routine around it – do you keep a spreadsheet of the locations you grabbed the photographs from? Based on the topographies of these booths you might have one of the most unique cityscapes in your hand.

That’s an interesting thought - but no, I was never that fastidious to keep a tab on the locations! There were only really two locations of photos; my initial found ones were picked up around where I spent my teenage days - Kingston-upon-Thames and Wimbledon, both in south west London. 

The later batch was from around Kings Cross in central London, and these are interesting in that King’s Cross is a major transport hub, so these photos show a huge diversity of people from all walks of society. I like the idea that this set of photos was also the story of that one particular booth - if only it could speak! 

The collection shown in my book is almost four decades old. It was only recently ‘unburied’ to be used as part of an exhibition of ‘found objects’. So rather more than being a geographical reference, it is a snapshot of a particular era.

I love the spreads with the burnt out photographs and the ones when the person taking the photographs had to rush away so the images depict an empty booth four times. Do you have favourite photographs from your collection?

Thanks! The ‘mistakes’ are definitely among my favourites. I love the burnt-out ones, and those with just curtains and a glimpse of the sitter disappearing from the booth! But I definitely have a few favourite portraits; they are the ones that really make me smile because of the sitters’ expressions or antics; I can sense the fun they were having in the booth! 

At my book launch, to my joy, two different people actually recognised a man in one of my favourite photos [11.jpg]. Not only that, but they also knew the name of the children's t.v. show puppet he is holding (Gilbert the Alien)! Their stories brought a whole new dynamic to the image.

Do you keep on collecting? And if yes, do you have a favourite photo booth that still operates nowadays? We might advise our readers to visit it if they have the time…

I rather stopped collecting Photo Booth images at the end of the 80 when ‘my’ booth must have been either mended or carted away. This combined with the disappointment of not receiving the ‘Woolworths’ collection from my friend also somewhat dampened my enthusiasm. Added to this, I left the UK in 93, and on my return in ’96 the world of Photo Booths as I knew it had moved on. I was thrilled to see a vintage booth in the early 2000s in the London venue CARGO, although was not keen on the digital machines which were taking over. 

Thanks to the generosity of The University of Brighton’s Annebella Pollen - whom I met at my launch - it has been wonderful to be introduced to the world of ‘everyday photography’ - and to be connected with people like you, Nigel Shepherd at The Family Museum, Jen Grasso and Marco @pplinphotobooth and @photoboothtechnicians. It was fun and fascinating to meet Jen, and heartwarming to hear about her and Marco’s work in bringing the analogue machines back into our lives! One of their booths is currently in The Standard Hotel (rather wonderfully situated across from Kings Cross station, where most of my collection came from). So, I’d recommend starting there - enjoy the fun of yesteryear!!

They came from the booth, the book from Sue Smallwood's collection can be purchased by
e-mailing her at sue@twinsglitter.com.

All photographs shown in this article are from Sue Smallwood's collection.

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The four minutes of anticipation 

Interview with Sue Smallwood about her collection of photo booth pictures – Collectors & their collection vol. 1. 

Focusing on the collectors and safekeepers, Eidolon Journal starts a new series where we showcase a unique archive and collection every month! In the first part of this new series we’ve talked to Sue Smallwood, whose collection of photo booth pictures captures raw emotions, offering glimpses into people's lives that we can all relate to.

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