by Kenneth Kimbrough
It’s difficult to begin expressing just how much I enjoy Meags Fitzgerald’s debut graphic novel, Photobooth: A Biography. At first glance, the plot is deceptively simple. One part lavishly illustrated history and one part autobiography, the narrative follows Fitzgerald as she develops a love for collecting photo strips, eventually giving way to a journey that takes her all over Europe and North America in search of the machines that produce these wonderful little objects. But on a deeper level, the fairly standard narrative belies a much deeper story about how through community, history, and fascination, a kind of alchemy happens that instills objects with a life of their own. The subtitle for Photobooth is “a biography,” which may initially seem incorrect, considering that the book appears to be about Fitzgerald herself. But biography is a deliberate choice that implies the author has recorded the history of a life, which is entirely apt. The way she illustrates and writes about photobooths lacks the cold description of a technical manual, reading instead like the fond memories of a close friend — even if that friend happens to be a hunk of metal with a camera inside.
On the subject of the style, one of the book’s most attractive features is the way Fitzgerald chooses to share her passion with readers. Many of the illustrations are reproductions drawn from photo strips, which has the double effect of giving readers a peek at Fitzgerald’s personal collection and of showing said collection through her eyes, since each detail is a choice on her part of representing the photo strips as she sees them. It’s hard not to pore over the many faces, the many moments captured in each person’s life, and to not become enamored with the narratives she creates, the stories each subtle expression suggests. For instance, a repeated theme is the private space a photobooth can create. Something as simple as a curtain can create a space for people to be intimate together and to be intimately alone. Examples of this private freedom include vintage reproductions of African Americans and gay and lesbian couples who are allowed to exist in the photobooth without the persecution of the outside world. Fitzgerald herself is regularly attracted to the booths’ privacy, and often depicts moments when she finds solace in the photobooth as a personal space.
Another key feature to Photobooth is the way Fitzgerald manages to take seemingly impersonal facts — such as the gradual disappearance of the chemical photobooth or the impending ban on a specific ingredient needed to develop pictures — and pull them back down to the personal. Because she does such a wonderful job of depicting the joy she derives from collecting photo strips, cold statistics take on heartfelt meaning. The likely disappearance of chemical photobooths within the next decade seems more like a tragedy than a technological advance.
In a sense, Photobooth is also about the power and permission we give to material objects to change us. This book has something of the effect of the snake eating its own tail; the graphic photobooth history and technical workings Fitzgerald depicts are an outgrowth of her passion for booths, and her passion for booths is precipitated by each step she takes towards learning more about these strange and beautiful machines.
One of my biggest fears for Photobooth: A Biography is that it may not have registered on many radars, which is a shame since it is easily one of the best books in recent memory. Rarely has a creator depicted so masterfully — and, might I add, positively — the mindset and sheer love that goes into collecting. If you give this book a chance, and I hope you will, I imagine you’ll be surprised to find that not only is Photobooth exceptionally readable, but that it’s also one of the most intensely moving books to emerge this year.
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