Alex Kokott / Steve Howard a.k.a. Mister Mixup
London, UK / Nottingham, UK
It is nearly six in the evening at the end of November, and central London is beset with the kind of cold that turns breath to frost and the gas bill into a Saudi prince’s ransom. Next to us, Steve Howard - sleeves up, wits out and about - is foraging. What cold? The clock closes in on yet another hour here at Rivington Street, but Steve (alias Mister Mixup) has already ploughed through an eclectic succession of scarves, and tea-candles, coffee cups, and is now moving on to a tree branch. He holds it aloft, like a prize - a particularly splintery, spidery specimen of a tree branch, courtesy of the unruly shrubbery that flank CARGO, the kicky live-music bar that also serves as a stage of choice for today’s theatrics.
“I’ve got an idea,” he announces. Alex Kokott doesn’t miss a beat. “Tree branch is good,” he agrees casually from where he is seated a few feet away, basking in the warmth of a roaring outdoor heater. Mister Mixup grabs the tree branch, fishes among the sunglasses, and disappears behind a little blue curtain. He reappears six minutes later as he is, offering all but one tangible indication of having undergone the slightest metamorphosis whatsoever. He lays it flat on the table for us to see. “Excellent!” Alex crows, clearly pleased with the results. “That’s really cool.”
On site at CARGO.
Hamburg-born Kokott is the owner of Photoautomat - a strip-shaking merry-making rarity that happens to be the only one of its kind left in the whole of the United Kingdom. Its varicoloured exterior can still pass as ordinary against London’s fashionable backdrop – a healthy splotch of kitschy blues, greens, and reds; a cross between a Shell Beach hot dog stand and an ABBA marquee. Inside, however, it’s as authentic as it gets. The Photoautomat uses the same chemicals, developing process, and paper as that of its then-ubiquitous predecessors. Despite being a good three decades younger, its output is no more sophisticated than those yielded in the time of Andre Breton or Fred Astaire - a single black-and-white strip comprising of four frames, each taken 20 seconds apart. And all for the low, low price of three pounds - nearly half of what regular digital photobooths charge today.
Mixup doesn’t waste a single second – he Is already busy curating a second set of materials for his next appointment with the Photoautomat. Mixup’s sessions with Alex are short-lived and therefore precious – Alex is based in London, Mixup in Nottingham; their schedules only acquiesce to converging only twice or thrice a year. But that certainly didn’t stop them from rising to the occasion each time, and today’s was no exception. The table in front of us is a cornucopia of Stuff, all Mixup and Alex’s. There are, in addition to the aforementioned scarves and tea-candles, homemade paper masks (cut-out shapes tacked onto old sunglasses), jaunty berets, sheets of swirled wallpaper (frenetic lines screaming towards all four corners; laboriously coloured in with a black marker). Some of these items are bulkier than others, and require a bit more footwork and wristwatch coordination on the duo’s part – they have anything between ten and 15 seconds to ensure each transition is effectively captured on film.
For that is really what the photobooth is about - an exercise in time. The images occur in phases that span nearly a minute-and-a-half in total – there is no telling what will amass between or from any of them; we know only that we are to begin with the first and end invariably with the fourth. One things leads to another – that is the only form of logic that governs the chaos. The original Photoautomat project began six years ago in Berlin, where some of Alex’s old friends decided to track down every photobooth in the country, restore them to tip-top condition, and release them back into their original habitats for a new lease on life. The public was where these photobooths truly belonged, and Alex jumped at the chance at adopting one of these idiosyncratic vessels and taking it with him to London, where he has been living for nearly a decade. Two years on, it has been colonized by everyone from Henry Holland to renowned Tate artist Fiona Banner, even landing itself a coveted spot at the Rankin Live Exhibition. The most recent Photoautomat event comprised of an open house where guests were invited to have their pictures taken and the final products exhibited all over CARGO. Despite the bar’s understated location (far from the monolithic shopping arcades and tourist centres of Oxford Street) word about the Photoautomat spread quickly, and within a matter of months Alex’s well-wishers included people from as far as Singapore and Thailand, all of whom were eager for a Photoautomat to call their own.
The Photoautomat calls the shots on the many faces of designer Henry Holland.
(Image courtesy of Henry Holland.)
While the Photoautomat’s most loyal visitors are those whose dates of birth far surpass the extinction of public photobooths, history has never had much catching up to do in this respect. The photobooth’s cultural relevance never truly waned. Hilhaven Lodge, Japanese purikuras, more Andy Warhol paraphernalia than roadside touts can bear - these were the IVs through which the photobooth was able to beat out its legacy and cling to life just long enough to witness its own triumphant revival. How else could one explain the popular paradox of smartphone applications that replicate the fuzzy effects of lo-fi photography – or how, when given the choice, its consumers are only more than happy to toss their iPhones aside and trip up and down Old Street in search for Alex’s machine?
When Mister Mixup first heard of the Photoautomat, he wrote to Alex from his home in Nottingham, 205 km north of London, and proposed a visit. “I knew I had to come along [to see it]. It’s like a new start – a rebirth.” A keen collector and creator of photobooth art for thirty years (“Well – it’s my 31st anniversary actually, if you count this one”), Mixup saw the photobooth as an emblem by which small, stolen moments have equal, if not greater, importance as the proverbial “big picture”. He has committed the best memories of all his friends and family to these monochromatic mosaics, espousing how they ought to be continually circulate, be returned to, inspire every time. Mixup’s son, for instance, is able to tell of how his father had taken him for weekly trips to a local photobooth in order to document his growth as a newborn – with a 10–by-15 cm flipbook to illustrate his story. Mixup’s unusual hobby eventually gave rise to the world’s first photobooth convention, which has since made its rounds in places like Belgrade and Chicago. His work even inspired the popular Photobooth.net website, an online gallery that also offers a wealth of photobooth-related tips and information. “It’s a more than just nostalgic really. It’s a good technique.”
Over the past two years the duo put this hypothesis of Mixup’s to the test, and the findings have always proved more than favourable. Their goal is to both maximize and manipulate the creative possibilities offered by the medium, to transgress the limitations of both the single frame and the chronographic strip in order to create unconventional portraits. But there is no planning, no elaborate philosophizing. Photobooth images are by no means a polished or even quality form of picture-making – so why pretend? It was, and still is plain pop, pure grit, a surprise. Alex recalls a particularly memorable episode - “A guy called me once, all in a panic, because his picture had gotten stuck inside the machine. I was out of town and I promised him I would have a good search when I got home and mail the picture to him right away. But he was making a really big deal out of it – ‘YOU HAVE TO COME HERE NOW!’ he was screaming. It turns out he was with his girlfriend, and his girlfriend had gotten naked inside the photobooth.”
“Spontaneity, this is what the Photoautomat is about,” Mixup chimes in earnestly as we watch Alex rummage through the props next. “It doesn’t always have to be about ‘Art’. Sometimes you’ve just got to have a bit of fun.” And so armed with an arsenal of bits and bobs – wigs are a perennial favorite, and the sunglasses – Mixup and Alex scamper in and out of the photobooth in between conversations and cups of steaming coffee. The entire business is operated solely on instinct. Mixup insists I join in. Over the course of the afternoon, his tree branch will become a flag (unfurled only in the final frame), a hanging vine, a leaning post. The hand-made masks, too, go a long way. Through some nifty illusory magic of Mixup and Alex’s, these flimsy paper pieces have successfully fashioned black-and-white dioramas out of perfectly ordinary 2-D images. They lend the impression of fat candy lips superimposed over human faces, everything leapfrogging and duck-diving against the psychedelic seismogram of Mixup’s wallpaper.
Mixup has a seven-thirty train to catch, and the final strip of the day is percolating slowly inside the Photoautomat. The now is nearly past and there is the great big future to think about - Alex hopes to increase the number of Photoautomats in London, particularly in and around the more popular museums, but admits that issues of costs and sticky bureaucracy present barriers to expansion. He stresses the importance of keeping prices at a minimum - “[Ultimately] it’s something that gives people the opportunity to go inside, be a little silly, and still get a proper photograph out of it. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it certainly should not be expensive.” As for whom he’d like to see shaking up the Photoautomat next – “Chloe Moretz,” he says with a grin. “Hit Girl in a photobooth – that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?”
Somewhere inside CARGO, someone is messing about with a drum set, his final cymbal crash just coinciding with the dry slither our brand-new picture makes as it pops out of the chute and into the world. Mixup plucks it up and holds it to the light, shaking beads of residual dampness off the gleaming surface. He places it carefully onto the table, as always. The image is seeping slowly into focus. We wait and see.
Photoautomat is located at CARGO, 29 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3AY. [Map]