Vintage photo booth owner Paula Birch is also a collector and an artist

Passionate artist: Paula Birch in one of photo booths, at The Edwards bar in Newcastle. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Passionate artist: Paula Birch in one of photo booths, at The Edwards bar in Newcastle. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

PAULA Birch remembers her first time vividly, like it was yesterday.

“It was in the Gold Coast,” she says. “I was age 15. There was one on Cavill Avenue in Surfers Paradise. I got in with my friend and I was just hooked.”

She still has the photos from that first-ever visit to a photo booth. Actually, she has more than 2500 photos of herself – every image that’s she’s ever had taken a photo booth, with boyfriends, ice-cream cones, new haircuts, crying, laughing or experimenting with new shapes like flying birds or flamingos, her wedding day, her infant son.

So it makes complete sense that she and her husband Nathan Zervos operate a collection of vintage photo booths in Newcastle, including their latest creation, Float-o-Booth, which debuted at the Olive Tree Markets early in November.

The vintage booths were once popular around the world, for snapshots and passport photos, fun and business at the same time. You could find them everywhere.

These days, with the advent of high-security passport photos and the “selfie” generation raised on mobile phones, vintage photo booths are a novelty in Australia, although they remain popular in Europe.

But Birch is a true believer. For her, the booths are more than a hobby: they are a tool for creating art.

She purchased her first booth in 2010. 

“I bought this first booth from Canada and turned it into a business,” she says. “It cost an absolute bomb. It was a real learning curve. The inside was filled with a year’s supply of paper and chemicals  and spare parts. A few owners here [in Australia] wouldn’t sell me one, They didn’t think I could maintain it. It came with a tiny booklet, the manual and I had to learn it all.”

The learning process never ends; that first booth now resides in The Edwards. Parts are expensive, from thermostats (to monitor the heat belt –  the film developing chemicals must be at 32 degrees) to globes to paper (only made in Russia).

Birch even met her husband when she was investigating setting up a photo booth in the Cambridge Hotel, which Zervos managed at the time.

Now, they do the maintenance on their three booths together, and they just launched the mobile one they created out of a horse float.

For Birch, the business is a labor of love (she’s an architect by day).

But it’s not just a hobby or a business, it’s also Birch’s outlet as a creative artist, who has documented her life for the last 25 years through photo booth images and more daring photographic projects she has done since obtaining her own booths.

This year a new boutique hotel in Paris, Hotel Declic, purchased three of her creative images to decorate a room in the hotel which is a tribute to photography. Her images are in the Photo Cabin Suite, which she was invited to stay in for a few days in August.

Birch capitalised on the visit to Paris to tour photo booths in that city as well as Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin, talking to owners and documenting all of the booths she visited.

A former Renew Newcastle tenant (Strip of a Lifetime vintage photo booths), Birch has also had photo booth art work in exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne and Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney. 

Float-o-Booth will be at the Olive Tree Markets on December 3 and 17.