It has been at least a decade since I last held a film camera or had my picture taken with one.
Analog photography has faded entirely from my world, and it seems that the rest of my days will be captured and defined by the instant gratification of digital cameras. It’s strange, though, looking at those photos the moment after they’ve been taken, knowing that they come nowhere close to representing a reality that’s still unfolding. It’s made me nostalgic for a time when it was weeks before I’d see my pictures. Those photo envelopes were full of surprises, stuffed with moments I didn’t remember.
I’m looking to recapture some of that mystery when I knock on the door of Photobooth, a hub for film enthusiasts. The shop isn’t open yet today, but Michael Shindler, one of the two owners, unlocks the door and ushers me in for a private tour. In the corner is a wooden stool surrounded by those big, heavy fluorescent lights on wheels. The rest of the décor is decidedly minimal. Plastic-camera, instant, and tintype prints line the walls, including two striking portraits that I later learn are Michael’s brother and son.
Michael, who taught at the RayKo Photo Center for 11 years, co-owns Photobooth with his former student Vince Donovan. The two became friends outside of class, and after a drunken night at the Hotel Utah, decided to open Photobooth. (“We sketched out our business plan on a cocktail napkin – I still have it somewhere,” Vince tells me.) Hoping for a well-trafficked space in the Mission, the pair lucked out when the Chinese medicine and acupuncture clinic at Valencia and 23rd, right next to bustling Beretta, became available. The warren of ’70s-style rooms “looked like a bad horror-movie set,” according to Vince, but the pair was able to strip the space down to its elements: an open studio, a tiny second floor, a back office, and a closet-sized darkroom. Today, Photobooth is a gallery, a walk-in portrait studio, a store, and a gathering space.
To demonstrate the wide variety of shots a trip to Photobooth can produce, Michael has offered to shoot the same subject (that would be me) with every tool in the store’s arsenal: four types of Lomography cameras, two Polaroid cameras with different types of film, and Michael’s specialty, the tintype camera (more on that in a bit). I’m anxious about playing model, so we start with a tour of the shop to calm my nerves.
The Lomography line launched in 1991, when a pair of Austrian art students became enamored with the Soviet-made Lomo LC-A camera. With its cheap plastic body, the Lomo (and its Communist counterparts, the Holga and the Chinese-made Diana) often let in light in strange ways, creating unusually colorful, saturated, and sometimes blurry shots. Initially, the Lomography folks acted as importers for the old cameras, and eventually began manufacturing plastic cameras and 35mm film of their own. Though the cameras are strictly analog, their influence can be seen all over the digital world, from Photoshop filters to smartphone camera apps like Instagram, Hipstamatic, and Vignette.
Michael shoots me with four of the shop’s Lomography cameras: a Diana; the Sprocket Rocket, which takes long, panoramic shots that print all the way to the little holes at the edge of the film; the Actionsampler, which takes four shots in quick succession; and the Fisheye, which has (what else?) a fisheye lens.
Polaroids and instant photos are Photobooth’s other specialty – a funny thing, since Polaroid is out of business. (It still licenses its name to products like TVs and digital cameras, but when it comes to instant analog cameras and film, it’s been off the market since 2008). Luckily for enthusiasts, two competitors have emerged to fill the gap: Fuji, which makes wide and mini film for its line of Instax instant cameras, and the Impossible Project, a team working with former Polaroid engineers in an old Dutch factory to once again create film for vintage cameras.
Vince is the shop’s instant-photo guru, and he and Michael spend a lot of time trolling eBay for vintage Polaroid cameras (also known as Land cameras, after their inventor, Edwin Land) that they can refurbish and sell. Vince shoots me with a ’60s-era Polaroid Big Shot, a giant plastic camera that was a favorite of Andy Warhol’s. With its long, fixed lens, it’s ideal for portraits. Then he pops some Impossible Project film into an ’80s Polaroid Spectra, quickly grabbing the photo and holding it against his side when it shoots out of the camera. Turns out the Impossible folks don’t have Polaroid’s old formula quite right, so shutterbugs need to shelter their photos from the light as they develop.
Tintypes, Michael’s longtime photographic specialty, attract most of the shop’s portrait-studio crowds – but they aren’t a new fad. Made by the wet-plate collodion process, which makes direct positives on a metal plate in the camera, each tintype photo is one of a kind. You can take a digital snapshot of it, but the photograph itself can’t be reprinted. Tintype photos were the gold standard in the 1850s. They fell out of use because they require each photographic plate to be prepared, exposed, and developed in just a few minutes' time.
Michael’s darkroom is a bespoke lab, filled with devices he’s designed for exposing aluminum plates to chemicals, loading them into the camera, and developing them. With the door shut, I watch him give the plates a chemical bath. Then we emerge into the bright lights of the studio, where he seats me on the stool and positions a large metal clip behind my head to help keep me still. After a few quiet instructions on how to move my head and set my mouth, he activates the ring flash and snaps my photo.
“I like making people sit still,” he later tells me. “People think ‘hold still’ means ‘don’t get up and walk across the room.’ But this requires them to be really still. It keeps them from posing.”
We return to the darkroom, where he gently runs my picture under a slow stream of water. My features emerge, ghostly white on a dark background. A dip into a chemical bath, and there I am, black and white, a haunted expression in my eyes.
While my photos dry, Michael opens his laptop and shows me some of the 500-plus tintypes he’s taken since the shop opened. (After the plates dry, he takes a digital shot of every one.) The faces pass in quick succession, and people of every age, race, and level of beauty seem to be reaching out to me with one plaintive pair of eyes. It’s as if the camera has bored right past their faces and into their deepest thoughts. I make a joke about the Amish belief that cameras are soul-stealers, and Michael laughs with recognition: it’s an old idea for him. When his subjects walk out the door with their metal plates, he’s giving them back.
We still have most of a roll of film to kill on the various Lomography cameras, so Michael loads them into a messenger bag, adding the Big Shot for good measure. He hands me the Diana as we stroll down 23rd. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a photo that wasn’t of a posed group at a party, and I try to concentrate on what I’m seeing, capturing the shimmering light through a tree, a gorgeously beat-up bicycle, the expression of consternation on the face of a passing woman. It’s strange how people notice you more when there’s a camera in your hands, their expressions simultaneously amused and fearful.
We turn onto Mission, heading for the Giant Value sign, of which we’re both enamored. It turns out the sign itself is too big to capture with the tools at hand, but while I’m shooting something else, Michael catches a shot of me in front of it with the Fisheye.
As Michael grabs some cash from a nearby ATM, I’m drawn to a grizzled paletero who’s perched atop his cartful of popsicles. “Paletas, paletas,” he calls softly as I snap his picture. Michael pulls out the Big Shot, snapping a Polaroid of his face. It’s a really good portrait, and when we show it to the man, he smiles.
“Tell him he can have it,” Michael says.
“A gift. For you,” I tell the man in my halting high-school Spanish. He grins, clutches the picture. “72 years old,” he tells me proudly.
We head back down Mission Street and leave him with his soul.
To get a Polaroid portrait taken by Vince ($20), just walk into Photobooth from 1–9 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Michael takes tintype photos of individuals ($50) and couples ($200 for a package of four) from 3–9 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. No appointment is necessary for either. Vince also shares his camera refurbishment know-how in occasional classes; the $150 fee includes a vintage Land camera of your own to fix up and take home. And if you’re already a Lomography or instant photo enthusiast, they’ve got plenty of cameras and film on hand for creating your own masterpiece.
Photos of Vince and Michael courtesy of Shahram Imen; photos of the author courtesy of Photobooth.