Anatol Josepho: The immigrant who introduced us to the selfie

March 31, 2017
Anatol Josepho leads a group of Scouts on a wagon ride on his ranch in Rustic Canyon. His two sons are the Cub Scouts (dark uniforms) in the front of the wagon. Photo © crescentbaycouncil.org

At a time when we are obsessed with selfies, where would we be without Anatol Josepho, a Russian Jew from Siberia, who in 1925 invented the photo booth?

Josepho’s contraption, which for a quarter produced a strip of eight photos, introduced Americans to the immediacy of producing variations of one’s self-image. Today, his invention’s descendants still can be found in amusement parks and tourist zones, and they have morphed into a must-have for b’nai mitzvah parties.

When Josepho first came to Los Angeles in 1921 to gain experience in the city’s film industry, who could have predicted that the rough plans he brought with him for an automated photo booth would bring inexpensive photography to the masses, changing the way Americans saw themselves?

Anatol Josephewitz was born on March 31, 1894, in Omsk, Siberia, to a prosperous jeweler and his wife, who died when Anatol was 3, according to “American Photobooth” by Nakki Goranin. As a child, he showed an interest in cameras and photography, and attended a technical institute. In 1909, at age 15, with financial support from his father, he went to Berlin and talked his way into a job at a photo studio, where the owner trained him as a photographer. At 19, he opened his own studio in Budapest, Hungary. After the Russian Revolution and World War I, seeking a new life, he traveled to Shanghai, where he opened a successful photo studio around 1921. There, he drew up plans for his invention, but he knew he would need to go to the United States to realize his dream.

“I decided to come to America and hunt for backers,” Josepho told The New York Times in 1927. “I landed at Seattle. It struck me that I ought to go to Hollywood and get motion picture experience.”

Realizing he needed more funding for his invention, he traveled to New York. In March 1925, he filed a patent for “Developing apparatus for photographic film strips” (Patent No. 1,656,522 was granted in January 1928) and in September 1925, he opened his Photomaton Studio on Broadway a few blocks from Times Square.

“Almost since the studio was opened last September crowds have stood in line to put the quarter in the machine and take a strip of eight sepia photos of themselves,” The New York Times reported.

With his success, Josepho began courting silent film actress Hannah-Belle Kelhmann, known as “Ganna,” the daughter of a New York printer. On July 22, 1926, they were married.

Anatol Josepho sits at the Photomaton photo booth he invented — eight photos for a quarter — which made its public debut in September 1925 in New York. Photo from Flickr Commons Project
Anatol Josepho sits at the Photomaton photo booth he invented — eight photos for a quarter — which made its public debut in September 1925 in New York. Photo from Flickr Commons Project

With the Photomaton attracting customers (one source estimated 2,000 people per day) and press, in 1927 Josepho sold the North American rights to his invention for $1 million (more than $13.5 million in 2017 dollars) to a business group led by Henry Morgenthau Sr., a prominent Jewish New Yorker and former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. “We will begin to dot strategic points in this country with studios at a rate slightly more rapid than one a week,” Morgenthau told the Times.

Pegged in the press as a “get-rich-quick genius,” Josepho nonetheless perplexed them with his altruism. He had a “plan to create a trust fund of half of the first million dollars to be devoted to general charity based along economically sound lines,” Josepho told the Times. In the same article, the paper labeled him a “Socialist,” which was echoed in other New York media during the Red Scare 1920s and was a potentially damaging epithet. Hardly considered was that Josepho’s generosity possibly had been motivated by his Jewish heritage — with a tradition of giving to the poor — or his exposure to the plight of other immigrants and refugees who had fled their countries in the post-World War I era.

In Josepho’s defense, a first-person column about his rise to success — under the headline “The Jewish World,” in the June 12, 1927, edition of the Syracuse Herald by Rabbi Jacob Minkin — stated: “[H]e is not a Socialist as has been declared; in fact, has no political affiliations whatsoever.”

In 1928, Josepho returned to California to stay permanently, moving with his wife into a home overlooking Mandeville Canyon. According to a book by Betty Lou Young, “Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters,” Anatol and Ganna often rode horses on the area’s mountain trails. On one such outing, Anatol found an area in Rustic Canyon near a spring that was suitable for a home site. The couple’s friend, famed humorist and actor Will Rogers, who owned property nearby and wanted them as neighbors, “even flew with him over the canyon in a plane and helped him plot out the site,” Young wrote.

Closing the deal, in 1932, Josepho bought 100 acres in Rustic Canyon from the Mountain Land Co., owned by Alphonso Bell (whose son later served eights terms as a congressman representing L.A.’s Westside).

After carefully clearing the land but preserving as many trees as possible, Josepho, who operated the steam shovel himself, contracted for a comfortable home, an “inventor’s cottage” and a barn to be built. He later called the ranch “Ganatolia,” after his wife.

In 1928, the couple had a son, Marco (who died in 2016). Two years later, they had a second son, Roy, whose birth was announced in the social column of the May 16, 1930, edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger.

In 1941, Josepho purchased another 110 acres to the north of his property for what would become a Boy Scout camp. He may have given the land to the Boy Scouts (his sons were Cub Scouts) “to express his gratitude to his adopted land,” as Young wrote, or because he foresaw the property — if developed “with separate water tanks and access road” — could “act as a first line of defense,” buffering wildfires that came roaring down the canyon, as an article on the Crescent Bay Historical Project website speculated. Most likely, it was a bit of both. The land, plus an additional gift of $30,000, made Camp Josepho a reality that today has programs in moviemaking and robotics.

After their sons became teenagers, in 1946, the Josephos sold their home but remained in the L.A. area. Like a series of shots emerging from his photo booth, the next decades showed a series of images of the couples’ participation, leadership and contributions to the L.A. Jewish community and Israel.

In 1957, according to the B’nai B’rith Messenger, the first Anatol Josepho award, a Torah made in Israel, was presented by the Los Angeles Israel Bond Committee to Congregation B’nai David (today Congregation B’nai David-Judea): “In token of the congregation’s outstanding High Holy Day Israel Bond sales.”

In 1962, the Josephos, living at 1801 San Vicente Blvd., in Santa Monica, hosted a cocktail hour and dinner in their gardens saluting Ort’s Tel Aviv Vocational Training Center; and in 1966, Ganna was elected to the executive board of the Bay Cities Jewish Community Center.

Seeing that the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology in Haifa (established in 1912), was an institution focused on areas of innovation that had made his career, Josepho gradually became more involved with the Los Angeles chapter of the American Technion Society. In 1968, he was elected one of the national organization’s vice presidents .

In 1971, as a part of a California Day, a large delegation of Southern Californians, including the Josepho family, gathered in Haifa to participate in the dedication of the Ganna and Anatol M. Josepho Building on the Technion’s campus, a building for which they had made a major financial contribution. At the time, said an article in the Messenger, the building was “the largest on the campus.” Today, the nine-story building is called the Josepho Industrial Research Center.

Josepho died at a rest home in La Jolla, Calif., following a series of strokes, on Dec. 16, 1980.

As a place for new generations of immigrants — as well as Israel’s future technicians and scientists and those from developing counties — to dream and develop their own ways of picturing the future, the building he left behind at the Technion could not be more connected to the booth that Josepho had devised so many decades before.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

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