The first known photo machine was featured at the World Fair in Paris in 1889. This coin-operated device would develop a “ferrotype”, a photo transferred onto a thin sheet of metal, in about five minutes.
In 1925, Russian immigrant Anatol Josepho built the first curtain-enclosed photo booth in New York City. After creating a successful prototype, Josepho opened Photomaton Studio on Broadway, which had three photo booths with attendants and attracted thousands of customers in its first months of business. For 25 cents, people could get a strip of eight photos in about eight minutes. Photo booths spread throughout the United States after this success.
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol began manipulating photo booth portraits in his work. He kept hundreds of photo booth strips of friends and muses, reinterpreting the black and white pictures with color, enlarging, and line drawings.
This photo booth picture was taken in 1953, at a time when laws allowed police to target queers. You could be arrested for holding hands in public or wearing clothing of the opposite sex. A photo such as this could have gotten this couple arrested.
In the photo booth pic, the guy on the right is J. J. Belanger. He was born in Vancouver BC in 1925 and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. Belanger met and fell into a passionate romance with an Australian pilot during his service in the Air Force. They trained and served alongside each other in UK until their plane was shot down off the coast of France in 1944. Belanger survived, spending three days adrift in a dinghy in the Atlantic Ocean, but his lover didn’t make it.
After the war, Belanger moved to California, where he was one of the founding members of the Mattachine Society, the early LGBTQ organization which started in Los Angeles in 1950. They named their group after Medieval French secret societies of masked bachelors who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticize ruling monarchs with impunity.
In the 1970s, Belanger helped found the Los Angeles chapter of the Eulenspiegel Society, the oldest and largest BDSM support group in the United States. In the 1980s, Belanger became involved with the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club and Project Inform, an advocacy group dedicated to improving the health of and empowering people with HIV.
Belanger worked with legendary sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey and was a Trans Rights activist before Transgender Rights were even talked about. He was also an archivist of historical LGBTQ artifacts and materials. The photo booth picture with him is now part of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world. It includes letters, notebooks, and recordings owned by Belanger.
What is so amazing about the photo booth portrait is how quietly radical it was in 1950. Belanger and another guy found a private safe space in the unlikeliest of places, an ordinary photo booth, where they could kiss.
Belanger left this world in 1993, two days after his 70th birthday. There were no obituaries or celebrations of his life, but it was a brave life, well lived.