Flash, flash, flash, flash! The giddy moments behind the curtain of a photo booth mark some of my favorite memories. I have a habit of stopping into any photo booth that crosses my path, resulting in a box full of photographs documenting my friends and I from awkward braces and hair-parted-like-a-curtain-down-the-middle years at the mall, to summery days at Coney Island, to time spent in the impeccable, handcrafted Magnolia Photo Booths that I first discovered at the Renegade Craft Fairs this past year.
The Magnolia Photo Booth Company sprouted up in 2007, bringing portable photo booths to all sorts of events and happenings, including weddings, craft fairs, art openings, parties and beyond. The company and the booths themselves were dreamt up and built from scratch by Peter Tower and cohort Daniel Sanders. What caught my eye when I first got my picture taken in one of these contraptions at Renegade was not only the beautiful quality of the photographs and the built-in fun of photo booths in general, but the clever design of the booths. I’ve really never seen one quite like it!
The Magbooth crew has hatched a scheme to bring their photographic fun to cities and towns across the country. They have ambitions to drive a custom-built Westfalia that runs on bio-diesel across the U.S.A. with a photo booth built into it. Their goal is to capture a Portrait of America through the eyes of an earth-friendly, one-of-a-kind, country-traveling photo booth. Through January 6, 2011, you have the chance to help make the Portrait of America project a reality and to bring a real, live Magbooth to your hometown by pledging your support to the project by visiting their Kickstarter page.
Read on for more insights into what happens behind the curtain at the Magnolia Photobooth Company through my interview with Peter Tower himself:
You craft these booths with your own two hands, right? How did you get the idea and the know-how?
I do craft the booths with my own hands. Let’s just say that my favorite book as a kid was Mr. Fix It. From years of extensive Lego creations, to working on horse ranches and as a handyman, I picked up some useful building and engineering skills. I also dabbled in photography school a bit and worked as a wedding photographer for a while. The combination of all those skills turned me into a crafty photo booth designing whiz.
The idea actually came from my friend Daniel some years back. He is a software genius and wanted to have a photo booth for an annual Kentucky Derby party that he had at his house. He created some software that could communicate between a camera and a printer to create a basic photo booth. I came along with my Mr. Fix It photographer know-how and our photo booth creations started to take off.
Over the years our software design has been taken over by a team of high-end coders, but I am still happy to spend hours in the workshop building booths or coming up with new designs. My days full of routers and Mig welders don’t happen as often as they used to, but I do get to play around every once in a while. With all the time I spend in planes these days visiting all of our cities, I do get a lot of drawing time. I love coming up with new concepts like redesigning the booth drop slot or the screen mounting bracket. The process of seeing one of my drawings go from paper to prototype to laser cut polished steel finished product is super satisfying. The only problem is that most of my ideas come at night when I am in bed, so sleeping is a bit rare for me.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of our headquarters:
So, without revealing your Trade Secrets, what goes into the making of your photo booths?
Traditional wet process photo booths are an elaborate combo of precise engineering and fairly toxic chemicals. Modern digital photo booths can be as complex as arcade video games or as simple as laptop tethered to a camera and printer. Our photo booths are somewhere in the middle. The goal of our photo booths is to look great and create awesome photographs. To do that we use some very high-end photographic gear combined with our custom made software that includes some fancy digital filters. The booth is pretty much a very compact portrait studio. We control the lighting environment and calibrate all the gear to create the perfect picture taking moment. One of the key aspects of our booths that helps us create awesome pics is our graphic design. Our graphics have the look and feel of old classic photo booths and include some vintage call to actions, like “Gentleman please comb your mustache” and “Children photograph perfectly.” These help get people in the mood to take some fun pictures.
What is the Magnolia HQ like?
Magbooth HQ in Louisville, KY is a classic American downtown storefront. It’s in an old industrial part of town that more and more businesses are starting to call home. The owner of the building used to have a lamp store in it and filled the space with amazing old lamps and trinkets. He filled an exposed brick wall with old door knobs and colored glass to create an old timey mosaic. We have added a skyline mural with attacking robots and hold monthly art exhibits that coincide with the Trolley Hop Art Walk. When the weather is nice we set up a booth on the sidewalk and let the crowds enjoy some free photo boothing.
What do you think are the ingredients for a good photo?
The best photo booth pics are those that tell a story or play out a scene. To the left is a set that my good friends Ty and Amanda took in a booth in Seattle. It is one of my favorites. By the way, Ty is our graphic designer and Amanda did the mural in the office. For all members of Team Magbooth, the challenge is always to perfect the full body shot.
I loved this story about the man at a medical respite center venturing to have his photo taken for the first time in 15 years in one of your booths. Do you have any other notable photo booth tales?
We leave every event with new stories. For example, there is always that one middle-aged woman at any event. Generally speaking she has had a couple kids and life has gotten a little more difficult than it used to be. She works too much either raising kids or working to pay for those kids, and the days of feeling pretty don’t come around much anymore. Most of the pictures that happen are with some cheap point and shoot camera and usually involve awkward posing and bad lighting. Now she is at a wedding and spots the photo booth. I see her and I tell her that she should take a picture. She says something back like, “Oh, I don’t want to break your camera,” and she declines.
Eventually, with some help from her kids or maybe a couple drinks, I convince her to get in the booth. She is timid about it but takes a picture. She gets out and is pessimistic about what is about to come out of the machine. She grabs the print and a loud laugh or a look of surprise usually emerges. She says, “Man, I actually look pretty good!” Then says something like, “Man, this reminds me of my childhood.” All of a sudden this person who hasn’t felt pretty in a while just received a complimenting photograph that she really likes. Boom. From that point on she gets in the booth 20 times over the course of the evening. She now feels a bit better about herself and has created some awesome pics that she will gladly share with her friends and family for the first time in a long while. It happens all the time that people say, “Man, this is the first picture that I have taken in 10-15 years that I actually like. I mean, wow, I look good.”
What are some of your favorite items in your prop box? Who makes the props?
The best props are the custom props that we have made. The mustaches are a big hit and our friends at Because We Can make those and Melissa Liptrap of the Makery (a.k.a. dearestinez here on Etsy) makes little felt props like “his and her” birds and such. But, my favorite prop of all is this little Fisher Price guitar. Check out my friend Teresa killin’ it with the guitar below!
Where do you hope the Portrait of America project will bring you? What do you hope the project will bring to America?
The problem with running any business is that you have to run a business. It is hard to get away from the constant pressure of increasing revenue and staying competitive. Our Portrait of America project is a chance for all of us to enjoy an epic creative endeavor that is not fueled by the bottom line. I have been lucky to take part in some amazing road trips in the past, including a 6-month tour of the U.S. with a band I was in. The connections you make with other people on the road and the stories that come from them are an important part of understanding what it means to be an American.
My sister and her husband did a year-long around-the-world trip after they got married. They wanted to expand their horizons before they had kids, so that they could pass on a culture of stories and shared experiences to their future brood. I hope that myself and my staff can help bring that sort of connection to as many people as possible. The photo booth represents one of the last true photographic tools that can create an unbiased document of anyone. Look in any magazine and you will see elaborate images of celebrities and politicians that photographers have molded to be dramatic and stylized. They are great to look at, but are rarely done of the common person.
A photo booth doesn’t care who you are and won’t direct you to be something you are not. The magic of a photo booth is that the creativity lies in the user, not the photographer. My fifth grade school teacher or my little nephew or a homeless man has just as good a chance to create an epic image as would Lady Gaga or Barack Obama. (Obviously I hope that all five people mentioned get to experience the booth on our trip.) That is why the photo booth is such a great tool to capture an actual portrait of America.
What advice do you have for burgeoning frontiersman on Etsy?
Do good work. If you are going to create something, then make sure that you can stand behind it with full confidence. To get people to respond to your art or craft, it has to represent you at your best. There is always going to be a Wal-Mart out there selling crap for next to nothing, but you have to believe that there are enough people out there who want something that represents something more, something unique.
And, don’t forget, you have till January 6 to support the Portrait of America project! If you have taken a sweet photo in a Magbooth, do share a link in the comments below.