Alan Adler was 40-years-old when he bought his first photo booth in the early ‘70s.
It wasn’t necessarily because he liked the art of photography, but rather because he saw it as a viable business venture: the small, self-serving grocer that he owned in Melbourne’s Hawthorn was struggling due to the iron-grip of a large supermarket across the street. Inevitably, it was putting him out of business.
One day, while perusing a local paper, an ad for two photo booths appeared.
“It would have been 1972,” Adler told VICE.
“That supermarket had killed my business, so I needed other income to live on. So I bought two photo booths, and then when the other vendor operating in Melbourne wanted to sell, I bought his and I went into photo booths full-time.”
Fifty years on, at the spritely age of 90 years-old, Adler’s photo booths have become part of the cultural lexicon of Melbourne city and are said to have taken over one million photos. At one point, Adler had 16 spread out across the grid (which now sit in his front garage). As of today he has one, the infamous black-and-white machine outside of Flinders Street Station.
Twice a week, Adler wanders down to replace the paper, the chemicals and collect the coins. He takes a “selfie” as a tester, by now owning hundreds of strips of his own face. An overblown self-portrait is slapped on the back as a sort-of advertisement, and sometimes people leave small “love notes”, some might call them, fan letters.
Scrawled in black ink across tiny sheets of paper are sentiments like We just want to thank you for this little gift to the world or Thank you for keeping it going for so long.
Around five years ago, Adler faced the possibility of removal after corporate warlords demanded a station refurbishment. He had 10 days to leave. With fear growing that the photo booth may never return, a young film student, Christopher Sutherland, plastered Adler’s face across social media. A community uproar ensued – the booth was allowed to stay.
“This perfect story just kind of fell into my lap,” Sutherland told VICE.
“I took some photos initially. And then obviously, within 24 hours, it went pretty bonkers online.”
Since then, Sutherland has been documenting the life and lore of Adler, who cites him as one of the most photographed men in Australia and also the oldest photo booth owner in the world.
Currently, Adler is one of just 60 people working with photo booths of this calibre, but it’s a business that presents a stark future in a world trading in digitised currency.
The war in Russia is also, strangely, making things difficult.
“The actual paper is made there,” said Adler. “It’s about $800 a roll now, it used to be $100. So it’s kind of killing the business off.”
“As long as my body says I can keep going, I will, but after that I don’t know what the future holds.”
“If someone takes the business over, they can do whatever they like. And hopefully relocate some of them. But it’s becoming very difficult to get the supplies for the machines, because the paper and chemicals are very difficult to get. They’re very expensive. The price is going to have to go up, which I don’t like doing because that just discourages people from using them.”
Despite this, Adler reflects on moments from the last 50 years, particularly the stories of his patrons, some of whom have been using the booths for generations.
“Some people tell me they’ve been using the booth for 30 or 40 years. One girl told me her parents used it a long time ago. I see some families take their children for a photograph every 12 months and now have a collection of photographs of their children growing up.”
Adler’s own collection of prints gets pried out of the backlogs every now and then. There’s a number of photos from a 50-something birthday in the black and white photo booth that now sits at Flinders station.
“Every guest that came, I took their photographs and put it into an album. A lot of those people are no longer with us, unfortunately. It’s a bit sad, but I look at the photos and think of my friends or relatives that have all departed.”
As Adler turns 90 years-old and hits 50 years of being in the photo booth business, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that the boom of digital will impact the years to come.
For him, nothing will ever beat the proper photographic process of the photo booth.
“That’s just the way it goes.”