Any true photo booth connoisseur needs to take a trip to RayKo Photo Center on 3rd Street. The entryway of the building houses a gorgeous Model 9 booth, which, depending on who you ask is either from 1947 or 1949. Either way, it’s 40 years older than any other booth I came across in the city. It’s so old that it hasn’t even been retrofitted to take dollar bills and you have to give your $3 to the receptionist, who, in turn, hands you a token that she thinks might be made on site by the wild guys who like to work on the old beauty.
Caring for this relic is a real labor of love, and its clear that RayKo is staffed with people who enjoy the job. You can’t get parts for the machine anymore, so someone’s always welding it back together or adding makeshift pieces to keep it running. And it runs great—at least the day I was there. The pictures have a vintage sepia tone to them and this booth captures motion better than any other I found.
Luis Mendoza, a RayKo employee, showed me the inside of the machine. It’s a mess of wires, chemicals, and metal and with this intimidating and potentially dangerous mixture, I began to understand why most of the booths have gone digital. He told me that the chemicals are harsher and less diluted in the booth than a normal photo lab, and that a few months ago, a splash of chemicals almost cost him his sight.
Mendoza puts a token in, and with the door open we watch the process together. At first I worried that seeing the process from the inside would ruin the mystique. That some how knowing that the clicking sounds are the metal arm dunking the strip into the various baths will make a photo booth seem more scientific and less magical. But it only heightened my appreciation of the machine. After all, here is a full photo lab, hidden within a booth small enough to fit in the back of a dive bar.
Read more about S.F.’s photo booths.