Text by Toby Skinner / Photos⁄Photoautomat Weserstraße & Mitja Schneehage
When Asger Doenst and Ole Kretschmann introduced the first Photoautomat to Berlin in 2004, they didn’t have high hopes. “We were thinking it would maybe be two weeks until it was trashed,” Doenst says. “We certainly didn’t expect anyone to use it – we thought people would think it was stupid.”
Fast-forward a decade, and there are 19 Photoautomats in the German capital, with booths also installed in Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig, Vienna and Florence. Though originally created by a Swiss company, they’ve become an iconic symbol of free-wheeling Berlin, beloved as much by tourists as late-night lovebirds.
They’ve also spawned imitators across Europe, though few can match the Photoautomat for a sort of inconsistently grainy authenticity. Their secret, aside from the delayed gratification of waiting for your pictures to pop out as the machine whirrs, is perhaps simply that they make people look good.
When I meet Doenst and Kretschmann at the booth at Kottbusser Tor in decay-hip Kreuzberg, they tell me the story of the Photoautomat’s revival. Back in 2003, the two friends were in Zürich to photograph an art performance when they came across one of the city’s old black-and-white photo booths, with a design that dates back to the 1950s – and experienced love at first sight.
“It was a case of seeing it and having to have one,” says Doenst, whose main job was as a photographer while Kretschmann was a novelist/scriptwriter. “Initially, I had no intention of starting a business. I just loved the quality of the picture and the fact that you get a beautiful, tangible record of a moment.”
The pair arrived just in time: in 2003, there were 150 of the booths in Switzerland, but Schnellphoto AG, the company that ran them, collapsed in 2005, leaving just one outside the Zürich home of Martin Balke, who ran the company with his brother Christoph. It was the Balkes who taught Doenst and Kretschmann how to maintain the booths.
When the pair installed their first Photoautomat on Rosenthaler Platz in the centre, the plan was to just have one. “But we needed more booths to cover the cost of the paper and the maintenance, so we started scouring Europe,” says Doenst. “Every both has a different story. We found a few in Spain that companies wanted to throw away – one had birds nesting in it.”
Their involvement grew, too, from a hobby to full-time jobs, with a workshop and four employees. Now, after a decade, they’re working on a book about the Photoautomat and are looking into doing creative work, from T-shirts to screen prints. “It’s just nice to have added a layer to Berlin’s culture,” says Kretschmann. “Whether it’s steet art, fashion or music, so many people have created something here. It’s nice that we have our thing.”
As for future plans, Doenst says the main one is to keep a tradition alive. “The amazing thing is that Photoautomats were built to last 100 years. They’ve been around for the last 40 and almost died out – we want to keep them going for another 40.”
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