‘Without wanting to sound like a megalomaniac, I like to think I'm giving these broken old photo booths a second chance at life,’ says Matteo Sani, founder and sole operator of Fotoautomatica in Florence, Italy.
Matteo worked as a set designer for 20 years before he took a sabbatical to travel around eastern Europe. While he was traveling in the region, he realized that, for a long time, Soviet rule meant it was taking longer for old-style photo booths to be replaced by digital versions. He enquired about these old machines and followed tip-offs from locals that led him to scrapheaps around cities including Tallinn, Belgrade, Warsaw and Bucharest.
He started buying as many black-and-white photo booths in various states of disrepair that he could find, knowing that they could lead to an interesting business idea back home in Italy. ‘My scheme required a healthy bit of madness,’ he admits now. ‘For the first year, I kept my design job because I still wasn't sure if I'd be able to accomplish this dream.’
After buying these vintage machines and bringing them back to Italy, Matteo began the painstakingly delicate process of restoring the original mechanisms. Some date back to the fifties, others to the early eighties, but the technology is almost identical. He became a part of the wider international community of those with a shared passion for analog photography, making connections as far and wide as Uganda and the US who could help and advise when he got stuck.
‘The beautiful thing is that when you open up the machines, the instructions are all in foreign languages – completely illegible and incomprehensible – but the mechanics are universal. They all work the same way,’ he says.
Eventually, Matteo contacted Florence City Council and persuaded the authority to let him install the first fully functioning machine on a street corner just outside the city center. It was a quiet success with locals and tourists and, over the years, he has installed six more across the city. Since they're purely mechanical, the machines take four and a half minutes to take, develop and deliver the photo; the antithesis of the instant gratification we're used to today. ‘Like Renaissance wine windows [tiny doors through which flasks of wine were sold], I want these to be something unique to Florence. Perhaps people will hear about them and seek them out when they come here, taking a unique memento home with them in the form of a black-and-white photograph,’ says Matteo.
Gradually, the distinctive Fotoautomatica brand has become an iconic part of Florence, providing a viable passive income for Matteo and allowing him to continue his passion to restore more. He has toyed with installing them in hotels or restaurants, including a brief stint at The Hoxton hotel in Rome, but has decided he prefers them on the streets, where they're available to everyone.
Matteo is the first to accept this is risky business: ‘All it takes is a bus route to change and no one will stop there any more.’ But once they're up and running, it's just a matter of restocking the developing chemicals and paper. ‘Believe me, there's nothing creative about this job. I restore and maintain the mechanics, but I don't want to change a thing, not even the color of the machine.’