There's something magical about a photo booth. And it's not just that there's a miniature dark room hidden behind the wall, or that someone has to care enough to measure and change the chemicals in the ancient machine. It's not even that in the digital age, it's remarkable that a real photo booth exists at all.
No, the real magic is in what happens behind the curtain. How for those 30 seconds, the world disappears. How entering a photo booth is almost always an ostrich in the sand scenario, where, despite our visible feet, we feel that no one but the person we have our face pressed up against can see us.
And there's something magical in the photos themselves—in the repetition of shape and shade and image. How a strip of four can somehow capture a relationship in a way that a single shot can't. It might be images of two lovers kissing their way through the series, or a gaggle of friends who entered the booth like a clown car. No matter the relationship, our connection is memorialized in those four squares. In those pictures, we don't hide. There is no background, no distractions. Just us. Together in a box. Waiting for the flash.
And there are plenty of these boxes left in San Francisco. Some are huddled in the back of dive bars, others are perfectly polished additions to tourist traps. And one, the oldest, is housed in a photo gallery, tended to by those who love it best.
Any good photo booth hunt starts in the bars. And the Mission has plenty of them. I should mention that I'm only on the hunt for film booths, not digital. Places like the Elbo Room in the Mission and the Castro's Lucky 13 offer digital booths, which are fun but lack the charm and quality of film.
Beauty Bar on Mission Street has a well-worn booth in the back. It smells a little like urine and it has its share of flies attracted to the lights inside, but that shouldn't keep you away. The pics are only $3 for the strip, and while the images are pretty dark and there's no white border around the edge, it does have one of the prettiest and gaudiest backdrops—a thin black curtain with gold thread that makes a girl feel fancy!
And if you don't like your pics, you can add them to the bouffanted lady silhouette made of discarded photos on the outside of the booth. When I was taking pictures, Steely Dan's "Peg" began to play, and my friend and I sung along to the words, "When you smile for the camera, you know I love you better," which offered a perfect soundtrack to our photo booth bar hop.
The southern edge of the Mission offers two great booths—one at Pop's and the other at the Knockout. The pics at Pop's have great contrast and you might even get some pure white in the image to match the white border. The booth is an early 90s model and similar to Beauty Bar's, but with fewer flies and more graffiti. It's also $3. Though there is a curtain, the graffiti serves as a more interesting and textured background. The Pop's machine is a full sensory experience—you can smell the chemicals and actually hear the machine ticking away as it makes its way through the developing process.
The Knockout's booth sits in the back corner, farthest from the stage. The night I went, there was a show and the patrons were none too happy with me wiggling my way through the crowd to reach it. Once inside, I pulled the red curtain (there's also blue) behind me, fed my three crisp dollar bills into its mouth and goofy-faced my way through the series. And then, when the pictures came out, they were in color—beautiful, vivid color. While the black and white photos are classic photo booth, this series was one of my favorites.
No photo booth trip is complete without a visit to Fisherman's Wharf. The device was made to commemorate vacations, so it's no surprise I found two at Musée Mécanique. The picture quality is good in each of the booths and there are some interesting vintage pictures on the outside, but the booths themselves are just your run of the mill black and white machines. The booth furthest from the entrance has a hand-written sign that says "photos may come out after 1 or 2 dollars," so you might be able to save a buck or two on that machine.
Any true photo booth connoisseur needs to take a trip to RayKo Photo Center on 3rd Street. The entryway of the building houses a gorgeous Model 9 booth, which, depending on who you ask is either from 1947 or 1949. Either way, it's 40 years older than any other booth I came across in the city. It's so old that it hasn't even been retrofitted to take dollar bills and you have to give your $3 to the receptionist, who, in turn, hands you a token that she thinks might be made on site by the wild guys who like to work on the old beauty.
Caring for this relic is a real labor of love, and its clear that RayKo is staffed with people who enjoy the job. You can't get parts for the machine anymore, so someone's always welding it back together or adding makeshift pieces to keep it running. And it runs great—at least the day I was there. The pictures have a vintage sepia tone to them and this booth captures motion better than any other I found.
Luis Mendoza, a RayKo employee, showed me the inside of the machine. It's a mess of wires, chemicals, and metal and with this intimidating and potentially dangerous mixture, I began to understand why most of the booths have gone digital. He told me that the chemicals are harsher and less diluted in the booth than a normal photo lab, and that a few months ago, a splash of chemicals almost cost him his sight.
Mendoza puts a token in, and with the door open we watch the process together. At first I worried that seeing the process from the inside would ruin the mystique. That some how knowing that the clicking sounds are the metal arm dunking the strip into the various baths will make a photo booth seem more scientific and less magical. But it only heightened my appreciation of the machine. After all, here is a full photo lab, hidden within a booth small enough to fit in the back of a dive bar.
Want to go on the photo booth hunt yourself? All you need is a handful of crisp dollar bills and someone you want to cram into the small, dark booth with. For the nighttime hunt, start in the south end of the Mission and hit up the Knockout at 3223 Mission Street and Pop's at 2800 24th Street. Make your way north to the Beauty Bar at 2299 Mission Street. For daytime pics, visit RayKo Photo Center's gem of a booth on 428 3rd Street and take a stroll through Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 of Fisherman's Wharf, finding their two booths hidden among the array of vintage games.
Illustration: Catherine Reyes-Tanhueco