The illustrated history of the photobooth

We spoke to Meags Fitzgerald about her autobiographical travelogue comic, Photobooth: A Biography, which tells the story behind the old-school selfie.

Meags Fitzgerald

Everyone’s familiar with photobooths.

Whether you’ve had a sneaky snog in one after a first date, used them for identification purposes or captured a moment with friends and family — most of us would find the schlink of the curtain and the coin drop familiar and cozy.

Scattered the world over, these booths create coveted memories, and with her debut graphic novel, Photobooth: A Biography, interdisciplinary local artist Meags Fitzgerald explores and explains the startling and fascinating story of these vending machines.

But the book is more than just an illustrated history — don’t expect a dry textbook read. Fitzgerald explains her own fascination with the booths relating them back to shared experiences, travel and unique opportunities that were created through her research, which allows the book to go beyond a discussion of the booths themselves to the nature of collecting and to the heart of this distinct international subculture.

I spoke to Fitzgerald earlier this week about her process, her collection and what she’s got planned for the future.

Photobooth A Biography- coverKayla Marie Hillier: What made you choose comics as your medium to tell your photobooth story? Were there any comics in particular that inspired you?
Meags Fitzgerald: I’ve been a life-long comic reader, so in that sense, the medium seemed obvious to me. Comics and photobooths also share several similarities that made the combination fitting. Both are visual, sequential mediums that reside on the fringes of popular culture.

The book that most inspired my approach to Photobooth: A Biography was Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage. It’s a travel diary, and in it Thompson forgoes traditional comic formatting and instead he creates fluid full-page compositions. I re-read it as I started illustrating Photobooth: A Biography and felt that Thompson’s approach gave me permission to break from traditional panels and tailor each page’s composition to its subject.

Book Page- Thinking about travelingKMH: How long did it take you to complete Photobooth: A Biography?
MF: I wanted to produce this book quickly because some of the content is time sensitive. The chemical photobooth industry will change drastically over the next two years and I wanted to get the book out before the vintage machines were gone altogether. I started working on the book full-time in May 2013 and continued polishing it, until it was sent to the printers at the end of March 2014. So the writing, drawing and last minute research took 11 months from start to finish.

KMH: What pens/tools did you use in its creation?
MF: Throughout the book I used black and grey ink with a variety of brushes, and to speed things up I also used a spectrum of grey brush pens. In addition, I used graphite, wax pencils and charcoal to create a unique feeling for the historical sections.

Book Page- Photomaton StoreKMH: Your favourite photos from your personal photobooth collection — do they have any similar themes or do they each have different stories?
MF: I have nearly 7,000 individual photobooth pictures in my collection, most of which are of me. They’re all from chemical, not digital photobooths. I’ve been collecting for 11 years and my favourite photos change as I get older and gain new perspectives. Right now I really like the candid and raw photos from my teenage years, before I was a pro at timing and posing. New themes continue to emerge as my relationship to being photographed changes.

Sample Pages- GreatDepression2KMH: Since you have several collections at the moment but you spend so much time traveling, is it hard to keep up with them? Do you end up having to mail stuff home or part with a good find?
MF: I enjoy the challenge of collecting within the parameters of my current living situation so right now I’m only actively collecting things that are flat: vintage photobooth pictures, vintage unused air mail envelopes and paper dolls from the ‘30s & ‘40s. Some of my most prized items, like my extensive collection of British royal family tins, are stored at my parents’ home. I look forward to a more permanent living situation that’ll allow me to display my prized possessions but for now I’ve still got the travel bug.

KMH: Can your photobooth collection feel like a burden at times and not just a happy hobby? Do you ever have moments when you consider giving it away or letting go of it?
MF: The collection itself isn’t a burden, but keeping up with logging and tallying my new photos can be quite the chore. I’ve never thought about giving it away; in fact, in the event of a fire I’d probably grab the collection over my laptop. I imagine giving it to my grandchildren someday, which will probably be very special because so few people today still assemble physical photo albums.

Authors PortraitKMH: Throughout your research and making this book, do you think it gave you some insight on why people collect objects? Why do you think people collect?
MF: The academic study of collecting is vast and I only explored the tip of the iceberg. I can’t answer why people have collections in general but I did gain a lot of insight into why myself and others collect rare vintage and antique items. The act of collecting is fuelled by a combination of nostalgia, appreciation and obsession. For vintage photography, the act of collecting is closely tied to preservation. Many collectors are motivated by the idea of saving snippets from a fleeting past. Personally, I’m fascinated by how things were designed and manufactured before plastics and polymers.

KMH: What are you currently working on? Do you think you’ll do more comics in the future?
MF: I’m going on a book tour for the summer! I finished Photobooth: A Biography so recently that I haven’t had the time to sink my teeth into a new personal project yet. One of the possible projects I am thinking about is a semi-autobiographical web comic. I am also playing around with ideas for a couple graphic novels that marry history and personal narrative… I hope to start developing these ideas once my book tour is over. And I’m a freelance illustrator, so I always have several jobs on the go. ■

Meags Fitzgerald will launch Photobooth: A Biography at the Conundrum Press Cavalcade Plus One at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard W.), this Thursday, May 8, 7 p.m., free