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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Guardian picture essay

'It's been my whole life': Alan and his photobooths – a picture essay 

The famous photobooth at Flinders Street station in Melbourne has been the centre of one family’s life. Alan Adler tells how he got into the industry by chance in 1972, shares photos from down the years and explains why digital just doesn’t have the ‘warmth and character’
by Naaman Zhou


In 1972, Alan Adler owned a grocery shop that wasn’t doing very well. An advertisement in the Age promised him $80 a week if, instead, he ran a photobooth – a contraption that he did not understand. He bought two.

“It was a disaster from day one,” he said. “One of the thermostats malfunctioned in the booth which caused the photo to come out white. I had no idea what a photobooth was about, and hadn’t seen one before I bought one.”

Above: Lorraine and Alan Adler taken more than 40 years ago

Since those first two, the 86-year-old now owns “too many” black and white photobooths throughout Melbourne to remember – though many are now in his garage, victims of the digital photo revolution. His most famous booth, at Melbourne’s Flinders Street station, has just been given a reprieve from a planned removal. It will remain at the station, though in a different spot.

Clockwise from top: son Damon Adler 40 years ago, daughter Cate Adler 45 years ago, Damon Adler in London in 1979

“We didn’t really make any real money out of the photobooth until the $1 coin came in,” he says. “Before that you had to use four 20c coins and we would charge you 80c. Not many people carried four 20c cents with them so I wasn’t really very popular. Then the $2 coin come out and we were really making money!”

Adler’s booths use the old school method, with silver-halide film, thick paper and a cocktail of six or seven different chemicals.

Letters of love for the photobooth have been collected over the years


“You can’t have a better photograph than a proper photographic process with the chemicals,” he says. “With a very expensive digital camera you can get close, but it doesn’t have the warmth or the character. Our photos are really long lasting. I’ve photos I took 46 years ago, good as the day they were taken.”

Fans and customers send him nice messages from time to time, which he especially enjoys.

Alan and Lorraine Adler pose in a photobooth

“I got some very lovely letters” he says. One was from a group who met up on the last day that one of his booths was in operation. “We want to thank you for so many years of happiness,” they wrote.

Now, the business has changed, and Alder says it’s no longer viable. It costs $2,000 for him to buy just one chemical used in the processing.

A collection of images of the Adlers’ friends and family at Alan’s 50th birthday

 A collection of images of the Adlers’ friends and family at Alan’s 50th birthday

“We really never charged enough,” he says. “Then digital photobooths came on to the market and we lost our locations.

“It’s been my whole life. We’ve met fellow photobooth operators all around the world. We’ve been to America a few times to get spare parts for machines. We met a guy in Switzerland. It’s been our life for 50 years.”

Alan Alder in his workshop

Do you have your own pictures from the Flinders Street photobooth? Share them with our picture editor