Like the author of this graphic novel, I spent a lot of time playing in photobooths as a teenager. No trip to the mall was complete unless it was commemorated with a slightly sticky, chemical-smelling strip of four black and white images. But unlike me, Meags Fitzgerald cultivated her love for photobooths as she grew up and transformed it from a teenage crush into a calling and, perhaps, even her one true love.
The subtitle, A Biography, is misleading, as this graphic novel offers so much more. It is in equal measures a history of the booth in the Western world, the people behind its invention and evolution, and the author’s personal travelogue and autobiography. Across its three parts, the books slips back and forth in time and in story, chronicling the evolution of the booth and Fitzgerald, as a woman and an artist. This convention could be jarring in other writing styles, but as a graphic novel it works well and avoids overloading the reader with too many technical details about photobooths all at once.
Part one introduces the reader to the carefully rendered drawings of photobooths and their inner working that will fill each page. No detail is left out from the stylized lettering on the signage to the delicate folds in the cloth curtains. To Atlantic Canadian readers of a certain age, a few of these images bring back memories. In addition to the history of many booth makers and models, we also learn about the people who invented them and pushed the technology to evolve over the last century.
Interspersed with these history lessons are vignettes covering Fitzgerald’s early flirtation with photobooths. The stories feature the expected scenes, such as cramming into photobooths with friends and discovering discarded photo strips, and also the unexpected, a fight to save her collection from a mugger that left her bloodied and bruised. Through each spread, the author grows from an awkward teenager escaping into the secret world behind the photobooth curtain to young art student yearning to create more with her chosen medium. Part one sets the reader up with enough knowledge about the booths and Fitzgerald to follow the story, but the narrative really comes into its own in part two.
Digital booths, Fitzgerald tells us, are on track to completely replace traditional, chemical photobooths later this year. To her this shift isn’t just sad–it’s crushing. The anguish in some of her drawings as she deals with this inescapable fact is visceral and understandable for anyone who yearns for older, analogue technologies ways. She embarks on many small journeys and several massive expeditions to meet the people on the business and the artistic sides of photobooth culture and document the chemical photobooth scene before it disappears. Her travels take her to warehouses filled with old machines, conventions lead by entrepreneurs and artists attempting to buy up and revive the old ways, and even a side project as a volunteer photobooth technician.
It would have been easy for Fitzgerald to paint the whole experience in the glow of fandom, but she avoids that route, opting instead to invite readers into her head and heart. We see the author when she’s not at her best: dusty, tired and downtrodden on a train from France to Italy. We see her doubts about her own art and talent, and even the project that is the book the reader hold in her hands. The drawings reflect her state of mind as the light strokes of the expertly reproduced antique booths give way to darker, more abstract images.
The book ends on a high note, and for those who are truly interested in the nitty-gritty of photobooth history, a separate notes and citations section adds more depth to the technical discussions and the background behind the drawings. That Photobooth: A Biography was a labour of love for Fitzgerald comes through loud and clear and it was a fascinating read, perfect for a snow day.