PORTLAND, Ore. - In a corner of the airy, wood-paneled lobby at the Ace Hotel stands a big black booth with a curtain at the entrance and a mirror with delicate script that reads: "You are beautiful."
Two young girls duck inside. Who are they to argue? They sit on a pedestal, pay $4 and wait. POP - a flash goes off. POP. POP. POP.
A machine inside whirs and clicks, and clicks some more. They wait, like hundreds of other people every week, for it to spit out a slender strip of paper with four little pictures in black and white.
Photo booths - the old-school, dunk-and-dry kind - are endangered. The experience of waiting for that strip, small little moments in time, is nearly universal, yet the classic-style booths are hard to hunt down.
The boxes, full of wires from disparate decades, aren't in production any longer. A Web site devoted to the booths puts the number at about 200 in the United States and about 300 worldwide. No doubt there are more of them out there, gone unreported and possibly unused, but whatever the number is, it's only going down.
They're being steadily replaced by digital booths. In the classics - both black and white and color - an image is projected onto a single strip of photo paper and then developed as you wait. The digital doesn't get much fancier than a home setup. A camera takes your photo; a printer sends it out.
The difference between the two is becoming less and less discernible, at least as far as quality and waiting time are concerned. But enthusiasts of the older booths, dependent on photo chemicals, will tell you something gets lost in the transition from grains to pixels.
Their future relies largely on people like Will Simmonds. He owns Photobooth Services, which operates classic booths in Seattle, Portland and Hawaii. He bought the business, a fleet of 25 booths, about five years ago. Despite all the practical concerns about maintaining aging machines that are out of production, the booths keep finding patrons.
Simmonds has about doubled the number he owns.
It's not an easy thing to keep them running - "You're always scrounging for parts," he says - but in the right location, a booth can take hundreds of images a week and gross nearly $1,000.
"You can go into a really happening bar where we have a classic photo booth, and there's a line of people who are waiting to jump in with digital cameras in their hands and phone cameras," Simmonds says. "That doesn't make sense. It shouldn't work."
But it does. Why?
"I just like the old black-and-white photo booths," says Posy Quarterman as she watches her daughter, Frances Rudy, totter around the Ace Hotel lobby. "It's just classic. I know that's cheesy."
She looks over photos of herself, her daughter and her baby sitter and smiles.
"See, they're awful and washed out," she says. "And I love them."
The very first photo booth appeared in 1925 on New York City's Broadway, between 51st and 52nd streets.
A Siberian immigrant, who struck up a childhood romance with photography and never left it behind, figured out how to rig a machine that would produce a series of photos on a small piece of paper, no negative needed.
Reports from the time say thousands would show up each day. For 25 cents, they'd get a small piece of themselves back, a memory of a birthday, a first kiss, a graduation.
The machines have changed. But maybe the motivations haven't.
"They're spontaneous, there's no preview, there's no delete, you don't have any idea how they're going to come out," says Brian Meacham, one of two men who run Photobooth.netPhotobooth.net, which keeps tabs on the machines.
"It is fascinating that it does still have some kind of voice," adds Tim Garrett, Meacham's partner. "People are more uninhibited. There's no photographer looking through the lens."
These two men - Meacham out of Los Angeles and Garrett out of St. Louis - are doing what they can to prop up the fading industry.
Photobooth.net features artists and galleries that have somehow come to cross paths with photo booths, in addition to keeping up their catalog. The Web site also helped organize the annual photo booth convention. And Garrett runs PhotoboothStL, which rents the booths for weddings and other occasions.
"The health of the photochemical photo booth industry, as it were, is declining, to put it nicely," Meacham said.
Garrett adds: "They're a real pain when compared to digital photo booths. It just doesn't make sense unless you really love them. It's kind of an industry fueled by love."
Then he laughs. "That sounds pretty cheesy."