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Photo Booth Art: The Aesthetics behind the Curtain, from the Surrealists to Rainer and Warhol at Kunst Haus Wien
Franco Vaccari, Esposizione in tempo reale num. 4, Modena 1972 © Franco Vaccari.

VIENNA.- The little photographs that come out of photo booths have been a source of fascination ever since their very early days in the 1920s. This is related both to the fact that one such little photostrip can preserve a personal remembrance in condensed form and also to the often ambiguous ways in which a photo booth can be used to play with one’s own identity. Analogue photo booths, which work on the basis of photochemistry, became a dying species in the 1990s and disappeared from the urban landscape. They were replaced by digital successors designed to produce biometric passport photos. In recent years, however, analogue photo booths have seen something of a Renaissance, and have now become cult objects.

The Artistic Use of Photo Booths: A Long Tradition
When the first booths produced by the Photomaton company appeared in Paris in 1928, artists, too, were fascinated by the possibility of obtaining automated self-portraits within minutes for very little money. The Surrealists were the first to recognise the artistic potential of photo booths. Many other artists were to follow, for example Cindy Sherman, Arnulf Rainer, Andy Warhol and Thomas Ruff.

Behind the curtain, a photo booth is an intimate place; yet, paradoxically, photo booths are found mainly in public spaces where large numbers of people come and go: train stations, underground stations, shopping centres – and, most recently, also venues of the arts and culture. The fact that these machines, with their strictly regulated modus operandi – four photographs taken at intervals of seven seconds each – were the only witnesses of what went on behind the curtain captured the artists’ curiosity. They began to play with the automatic function or attempted to get the maximum narrative potential out of the photo series. Actually, the photo booth was designed for the purpose of producing photos for the official authentication of a person’s identity. Consequently, the idea of also using this machine to illuminate and question one’s own identity, to play with that identity or even reconstruct it, was – and is – particularly intriguing.

The Exhibition
With more than 300 works by about 60 international artists, the exhibition “Photo Booth Art” introduces us to the world of the “aesthetics behind the curtain”, which range from the photo booth’s “original” function through artistic ways of playing with identities to the telling of short stories or the creation of individual worlds.

The Surrealists made intensive use of photo booths. Their automatic operation made it possible to take photographs without a photographer, so that the invention represented a visual counterpart to “automatic writing”. In the hands of the Surrealists it became an artistic medium. 16 self-portraits of artists, including André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, were published as a photomontage in the last issue of the magazine “La Révolution Surréaliste” in December 1929.

The idea of entrusting the production of a work of art to a machine also fascinated many artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Andy Warhol began using photo booths for his portraits in 1963. He subsequently arranged for one of them to be set up in his Factory, and for over five years he used it to make numerous photo series of the people who came and went there. Selected photos from this machine were further processed to make serigraphs.

Arnulf Rainer used this technique requiring no human intervention to document his physiognomic explorations in the late 1960s, and, with the help of the photo booth, produced a catalogue of extreme facial expressions ignored by society. Just as he combined drawing and photography in many of his works, here Rainer united two apparently antithetic forms of expression: the intensity of performance and an automated form of documentation – thereby, in a way, relegating his status as the author of the work to the background.

In 1972, the Italian artist Franco Vaccari set up a photo booth in an otherwise empty exhibition space at the Venice Biennale. His “Exhibition in Real Time“, as it was entitled, became a collective work created out of more than 40,000 passport photos of visitors to the exhibition, a work for which the public served as both creator and protagonist. Vaccari had begun conceiving projects in real time in the mid-1960s, and was the first artist to use photo booths in this particular way.

Since the 1970s, Cindy Sherman has explored the cliché-laden forms of expression of female identity and in doing so has made use of the codes of contemporary pop culture. For one work shown in this exhibition, Sherman posed as the Hollywood actress Lucille Ball and chose the characteristic ambience of the photo booth to create an emblematic photo in the style of the 1930s and ‘40s. This work, created in 1975, was a forerunner of the series “Untitled Film Stills“, which brought Sherman her major breakthrough in the early 1980s.

The Israeli artist Alain Baczynsky underwent psychoanalysis from 1979 to 1981 in Paris. After each session he went to a photo booth and re-enacted the therapy session before the camera lens. He sensed the deficits of the purely verbal therapy process and used the photo booths to conduct a “psychoanalytic process in pictures”.

The German photographer Thomas Ruff deals, in his work, with the ambivalence of reality and fiction in the photographic medium. In 1984 he used the aesthetic model of the passport photo to make a portrait series of his friends at the Düsseldorf Academy: a central image, diffuse frontal lighting, a neutral background. The large-format photographs were intended to show that photography does nothing other than reproduce “the authenticity of a pre-arranged and manipulated reality”.

The oeuvre of Jan Wenzel, who was born in Leipzig in 1972, revolves around photo booth art: With this machine, he creates fictitious spaces in the form of tableaus that are put together out of individual photostrips. As his point of departure he uses objects that he found in abandoned buildings in Leipzig after the reunification of Germany. He dismantled these acquisitions or sawed them into pieces so they would fit into the photo booth that he set up in his studio in 1998. Out of these individual images he has put together rooms and scenes that never existed in reality.

The American artist Näkki Goranin has been collecting photo booth portraits for approximately 15 years and is greatly inspired by this technique in her work. In 2008, she revealed her important collection in the book “American Photobooth”, in which she displays the very intimate character common to many of these portraits, describing how users “were stripping off their clothes for the private photo booth camera.” And in the 1980s, the length of the curtain was halved, for security and moral reasons.

For the American artist Anita Cruz-Eberhard, the photo booth embodies her adolescence. For “Stitched Faces, Red,” she made a stitched collage of many different photo booth images of herself in order to reveal a more complex personality than that which is represented in her identity portraits and to express a personal process of construction or reconstruction of her identity; a state already experimented through and inherent to adolescence.

Artists and collectors represented in the exhibition:
Jean-Michel Alberola, Louis Aragon, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, Richard Avedon, Alain Baczynsky, Jared Bark, Marc Bellini, André Breton, Hansjürg Buchmeier, Anita Cruz-Eberhard, Sabine Delafon, Anne Deleporte, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Michael Fent, Michel Folco, Lee Friedlander, Näkki Goranin, Jeffrey Grostern, Susan Hiller, Dick Jewell, Svetlana Khachaturova, Jürgen Klauke, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Naomi Leibowitz, Leon Levinstein, Annette Messager, Willy Michel, Daniel Minnick, Suzanne Muzard, Raynal Pellicer, Mathieu Pernot, Steven Pippin, Paul Prévert/J.A. Boiffard, Raymond Queneau, Arnulf Rainer, Timm Rautert, Bruno Richard, Thomas Ruff, Michel Salsmann, Tomoko Sawada, Joachim Schmid, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Dimitri Soulas, Yves Tanguy, Amanda Tetrault, Roland Topor, Franco Vaccari, Andy Warhol, Gillian Wearing, Jan Wenzel, David Wojnarowicz

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