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Photo booths are popping up all over San Francisco—and you have this company to thank

The image is a collage of people against a red curtain backdrop, each person making different facial expressions and gestures. Most wear blue shirts with name tags.
The co-founders and employees of Photomatica are behind the resurgence of photo booths across the Bay Area and beyond. | Source: Photo illustration by Jungho Kim for The Standard, photos by Carolyn Fong for The Standard

Photo booths are popping up all over San Francisco—and you have this company to thank

In the past few weeks, crowds of up to 100 people per day have been flooding Photoworks, an analog photography shop in San Francisco’s Castro District, causing lines of young people to spill out the door, all of them eagerly awaiting one thing.

“They’re coming in just to use the photo booth,” Photoworks co-owner David Handler said. While his shop received the machine in May, a recent swell of viral TikToks has turned it into a mecca for teens and 20-somethings. “I thought it was going to be a hit,” Handler added. “But I had no idea it was going to be this popular.” 

Photoworks’ booth—an Auto-Photo Model 14 from the 1960s that develops black-and-white photo strips—is owned (and lovingly maintained) by a local company called Photomatica.

If you’ve taken pictures in a photo booth in SF, whether while drunk at a dive bar or while popping into a plant shop or food hall, chances are you’ve used a Photomatica machine. The 12-person company operates more than 50 vintage or custom-made booths in the Bay Area alone—and more than 150 others in cities like Los Angeles, Toronto and Amsterdam. 

“We’re in the business of building happiness machines,” said Photomatica cofounder “Dirtbag” Doug Ellington. “They create such a simple thing—just a picture of yourself—but the novelty of having a tangible, printed photo can feel so unique and special, especially now.” 

A person with tattooed arms, wearing a white shirt, is sitting and stretching inside a vintage photo booth with an orange curtain, in an industrial setting.
Doug Ellington steps into an original mid-modern century photo booth to show how he creates a full-body photo strip. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard
A hand holds a photo strip of a man with a mustache raising his tattooed arms, wearing a "PHOTOMATICA" t-shirt, against a wooden background.
Ellington shows off the results of his expertise in full-body photography. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

While Photomatica has been around for more than a decade, its founders say interest in taking photo booth pictures has surged in recent years. Every weekend, people seeking that jolt of joy pop behind the curtains of one of the company’s local booths and pose for roughly 5,400 photos at three pics per strip. 

All told, the company estimates it prints about 20,000 photo strips in the Bay Area monthly from its vintage “dip-and-dunk” models and its newer age digital machines. It tailors the latter to suit the aesthetic of each location, whether mimicking Mother Bar’s electric purple hues or converting an old phone booth at the historic Ha-Ra Club in the Tenderloin. 

The image shows a room filled with vintage photo booths, each bearing signs that say "PHOTOS". The room is cluttered with photo rolls and has a wooden ceiling.
Photomatica has installed dozens of photo booths at bars around San Francisco, including Delirium, Mother Bar and Ha-Ra Club. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

“There’s a magic to each specific photo booth, in its specific location, with its specific character,” said Photomatica’s other cofounder, Matt Dewalt. 

Whether four people try to cram into the frame or a couple shares a smooch inside, a photo booth makes ephemeral moments permanent.

“You might not remember that night in five years, or in one year, or next week, maybe,” Dewalt said. “But if you have that photo strip, that memory will always be there.” 

The Chrissy Teigen effect 

Before Photomatica’s founders started their business out of a Haight Street garage in 2010, Dewalt had never even used a photo booth. 

But Ellington, a college friend who’d also relocated from Tennessee, had struggled to find one for his wedding. Sensing an opportunity, the duo began building their own vintage-inspired booths and renting them out for events. Then, about five years on, they started trying to convince their favorite dive bars to let them set up shop inside. 

Their pitch was straightforward enough: The bar gets a free branded booth plus a small cut of its sales, while Photomatica earns a bigger portion while handling everything from maintenance to sales tax.

Two men stand in a cluttered workshop with a photo booth, surrounded by tools, equipment, and colorful signs advertising photos on a mezzanine above.
Matt Dewalt (left) and Doug Ellington (right) started Photomatica out of a Haight Street garage in 2010. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

“You can get a Walmart-quality photo booth for your spot, and it’s gonna be what it is, or you can get the Ferrari of photo booths, where we’re gonna build you something really beautiful,” Dewalt said. “It’s going to fit exactly into your hot-pink-and-purple bar and everyone’s gonna love it.”

The idea took off in San Francisco—with Mission/Bernal dive El Rio hosting Photoworks’ first successful machine—so the duo started working their contacts across the country, eventually landing booths in over 20 states. Dewalt has, of course, amassed his own collection of thousands of photo booth shots by now. 

Many of them are plastered around Photomatica’s workshop on Treasure Island, which is wallpapered with hundreds of glossy images of its employees in all moods: smiling, serious, looking goofy or mean mugging. 

The image shows a store front with a sign that reads "PHOTOMATICA" in colorful letters. Below, there is a photo booth with the words "Take Pics Have Fun." Various items are stored above.
Photomatica operates out of this colorful workshop on Treasure Island. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard
Two people in blue jackets work together in a cluttered workshop. The walls are covered with photo strips, various tools, and colorful posters.
Photomatica's staff of 12, including Liam Hogan (left) and Chris Grande, design and construct vintage-inspired photo booths in San Francisco. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

Power tools, gear and cleaning equipment are spread throughout, while saw blades hang on the walls alongside cheeky posters and random memorabilia. It’s a manufacturing studio with a maximalist flair.

There, the company constructs its booths: soldering frames, hand-sewing curtains and shellacking stools. While rentals and bar installations make up most of Photomatica’s business, it also uses the workshop for what Dewalt describes as the “sexy” part of its work: fixing up rare analog booths from as far back as the 1940s. 

These models harken back to an era that’s almost impossible to comprehend now, before digital photography or even those disposable green Fujifilm cameras, back when every mall or movie theater had an analog booth tucked in the back. 

During the pandemic, that business got a big break when model and actress Chrissy Teigen emailed the company out of the blue, asking to buy one of its vintage models, which can cost upwards of $40,000. Teigen ultimately shared her photo booth shots on Instagram to tens of millions of followers—and tagged Photomatica in the comments. 

The floodgates opened. Photomatica started receiving interest from other celebrities, influencers and enthusiastic collectors around the world. The supply of old analog booths is limited—Dewalt estimates that there are only about 250 publicly usable vintage booths worldwide—hence their sky-high price tags. 

A man in a blue shirt, with "PHOTOM SAN FR" on the back, operates complex machinery, adjusting a component inside while various wires and parts are visible.
Matt Dewalt shows the interior of an analog photo booth, which has chemical tanks where special paper is dipped and dunked to develop photo strips. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

Over time, potential complications with these machines have, well, developed. Finding the right paper for their photos has grown increasingly challenging, for instance, and the machines themselves can be finicky. Instead of selling these refurbished booths, Photomatic primarily prefers to install them at places like Photoworks, where the masses have access and it can troubleshoot issues. 

“Owning one of these old booths is like owning an old motorcycle: It’s cool, but you better be a mechanic and you better have electrical experience—because otherwise, it’s a headache,” Dewalt said. 

Photomatica employee Mischa Helper has come up with a novel solution for addressing issues. He sets up a camera inside the guts of each vintage Photomatica booth, so that he can monitor the machine’s innards and see whether things are running smoothly. If anything starts looking askew, he heads over to fix it. 

Photomatica charges more for pictures taken at its vintage machines, with a session going for $7.50 for one strip versus $6.50 for two at its digital booths. But you’re not just buying a photograph, you’re buying a slice of history, according to Helper.

“There’s a generation of people right now who are seeking out these booths that are much older than they are,” Helper said, adding, “And everybody looks better in a vintage photo booth.” 

Peeking behind the curtain 

Beyond the brush of antique charm that an iPhone selfie just can’t compete with, photo booths have a special allure because there is no photographer and there are no rules, according to Helper and his Photomatica colleagues. 

“It’s just the people in the booth, being themselves and interacting with each other,” he said. “It creates an intimacy.”

Liam Hogan, a Photomatica worker who got the job after sending his own cold email to the company last year, said that taking hundreds of photo booth photos for work has helped him become more comfortable and confident in his own skin. 

“You have to lean into being a little bit of a show-off and being proud of it,” agreed employee Alexi “Big Tex Lex” Molinari. 

He and Hogan help design and manage Photomatica’s booths. “This is a niche enough thing where if we really want and work at it, we can be the best in the world at this,” Hogan said. “To be a part of that, at this stage, is exciting.”

A man with short, dark hair and a light stubble peeks out from behind an orange curtain, holding it open with one hand. He stands inside a photo booth.
Photomatica cofounder Matt Dewalt sits inside a mid-century modern designed analog booth. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard

A photo booth’s velvet curtains offer privacy, too. In the early days, they allowed queer couples to steal kisses without unwanted attention. Now Dewalt said, they’re havens for all sorts of debauchery, from steamy make-outs to quick key bumps. People flash the camera inside Photomatica’s photo booths. They confess their crushes. They’ve even gotten engaged. 

“The magic that happens inside the booth, whether for popping the question, stealing a kiss or creating a safe space, gives these wooden boxes a spirit over time,” Dewalt said. 

Photomatica is on track to build and install 75 new booths this year that it hopes will bring a little bit more beauty into the world, Dewalt added. The company also aims to install between six and eight analog booths around the Bay Area, so that photo nerds will be able to do a “booth crawl” and visit machines from the 1940s to the early aughts, he said: “Our goal is to make the Bay Area a vintage photo booth destination and paradise.”

Photoworks, of course, would be a stop on that tour. 

Handler, the shop’s co-owner, said that, in addition to the hordes of teens, his booth has welcomed drag queens, a couple fresh from their wedding, several parents with babies and even a few people with their dogs in tow. The cool factor and artistic vibe of the photo booth is also making young people more film-curious in general, he’s noticed. 

“Maybe the photo booth is an entree for that,” he said. “That would be a beautiful thing.”

Seven people are crowded in an old-fashioned photo booth, smiling. The booth advertises “PHOTOS 4 DIFFERENT POSES 25¢.” Walls are filled with photo strips.
Clockwise from top left: Chris Grande, Mischa Helper, Lisa Allbaugh, Doug Ellington, Alexi Molinari, Liam Hogan and Matt Dewalt cram into in an original 1940s analog photobooth at the Photomatica workshop. | Source: Carolyn Fong for The Standard