'Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.' Susan Sontag, On Photography
Within Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, between the ticketing machines and a Boost Juice Bar, lies a small photo booth that has become somewhat of a local landmark since its installation in the 1970s.
Large groups have stumbled into the booth on a night out, retrieving a souvenir to mark their exalted evening; young couples have recorded date-nights in the booth, choosing by the third flash to awkwardly or passionately kiss one another; some citizens “come and take their photograph once a week,” says Alan Adler, owner of the booth, “…you know, just to make sure they’re still alive”.
When it was announced that the venerable attraction was being removed, one local was particularly struck by the news. Veronica Charmont — a visual arts student with a passion for photography — had stepped in and out of the booth countless times, revelling in the analogue medium of the strips ejected.
In light of the impending shutdown of the machine, she conducted a private homage of sorts: “I decided to take one photo in the booth each morning, before the day of it’s removal arrived.” Inspired by her accruing collection of photographs, she then proceeded to hunt down photos that others had taken in the booth, sharing her findings on a public Instagram account: @flindersphotobooth.
“I wanted to keep the booth alive in some way,” Veronica explains. “Initially I thought I would get almost no photos at all, but I was at the booth one day when it’s owner Alan was repairing it, and there was a small crowd waiting to take their photographs. I spoke to some of them, asking if I could possibly post their pictures and was lucky to gain an immediate start.”
@flindersphotobooth has a quaint although respectful following of over one thousand and a feed of hundreds of photographs sent in by Melbournians. It is by no means a viral sensation, however, this by no means diminishes the value or interest of the project. In fact, the modest audience size only imbues the account with greater humanity and resonance. As people submit photographs they have taken of themselves in the privacy of the booth, they are doing so for a very immediate and present audience of locals. Doe-eyed, teary, or beaming with a full set of teeth; the subjects are entirely self-exposed, and the act of sharing them on such an intimate and communal platform becomes, in some way, an act of vulnerability.
“There’s something very unusual yet comforting in having your photograph taken alone in the booth. Often we snap pictures of ourselves on our phones or cameras, but nothing looks the same as what is exposed on that single strip. It’s almost like the photos taken there are free of time and place; just simply containing the image of the person, their features and characteristics. I think it is also quite personal. Before the flash goes off you see your reflection in the glass which covers the lens, and it is simply just you and the camera. There is no audience, no viewer but yourself.”
Containing a feed full of self-portraits, the project stands testament to our innate urge to self-document. With the advent of the ‘selfie’ – a trend cognate with the introduction of iPhone cameras – photo booths can be seen as a precursor to our current period of new-age narcissism, but perhaps a more deliberate, considered, and less narcissistic mode of self-engagement.
“Self-documentation is important… we’re constantly changing and morphing, making alterations to our image, to our personalities. Often we don’t really notice when time has passed and we’ve grown or aged. The most valuable thing about a photograph is that it contains a memory and a period of time that is now gone. If you’re a sentimental person like me it can be genuinely special to have a physical record of that past self and moment. ”
Poring over these photographs, you will find yourself overwhelmed with a nostalgia that doesn’t belong to you. You will also perhaps detect a certain quality of art that lies within them. Although in the instance that they were taken, these photographs were not intended to be classified as such, Veronica’s project delineates the artistic potential of re-contextualisation and the possibilities that emerge for interactive artworks on social media. In stringing together these relics of the past, taken in the same pokey booth, and broadcasting them to onlookers, artefacts suddenly become art.