The first-date snapshots that saved a slice of Melbourne history

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A young couple on their first date squeezed into an old photo booth outside Flinders Street Station.

Laughing and sharing a kiss, they had their first photos taken together.

Love story: Jessie Norman and Chris Sutherland, new owners of the Flinders Street Station photo booth, where they went on their first date in 2018.Credit: Luis Ascui

The snapshots from that night in May 2018 provided a memento of a lovely night for Chris Sutherland and Jessie Norman, who are still together five years later.

But another beautiful connection was forged: within 24 hours, they saved the booth from the scrap heap, and they later befriended its owner of 50 years, Alan Adler.

And now the couple own the booth.

Late last year, after Adler’s wife, Lorraine, died, he fell ill and Sutherland and Norman kept the booth going – changing chemicals and paper, cleaning and repairing for a few weeks while Adler recovered.

Adler, 91, felt it was time to sell it to them and says the Melbourne institution is in good hands for the future.

Alan Adler, 91, who operated the Flinders Street Station photo booth for 50 years. Younger photos of him are among images on the booth.Credit: Luis Ascui

“It’s nice that it keeps going, because a lot of customers love the photos. Chris is more competent, tech-wise, than me” he says, pointing to new computer-generated notices on the booth.

Chris Sutherland and Jessie Norman took these photos in the booth in 2018 on their first date.

It requires dedication, servicing machines at 6am. “If I knew a machine was out of order I never slept properly until I got it going again,” Adler says.

Sutherland says: “The goal for us is to keep this going, hopefully for another 50 years, just like Alan did.”

He says that sometimes the job feels like a community service.

On Tuesday night, a stranger sent Sutherland a message via a QR Code on the booth. Her ailing cat was due to be euthanised the next day and she wanted to pose for a photo with it. But the booth was not working.

Sutherland travelled to the city, reconnected the power, and the woman took a photo of herself cuddling her pet.

Sutherland and Norman are preparing for an exhibition about Adler next August at the Centre for Contemporary Photography and are also making a documentary.

They post photos that customers submit on the Flinders Street photo booth Instagram page.

One man has documented his life in the little strip photos over 44 years. Sutherland’s parents, Carol and Kevin, took a photo together at the booth the day before their wedding in 1975, and repeated the shot in 2019.

On Sutherland and Norman’s 2018 first date, they spied a handwritten note on the booth saying it was about to be removed.

They rang Adler, whose home phone number was on the booth. He told them he had been given 10 days’ notice to vacate because of station renovations.

Sutherland said he couldn’t bear to see the end of “something that seemed so permanent and part of the fabric of Melbourne”.

He and Norman posted the story on social media, and it went viral. It featured in The Age and on Nine News.

With Lord Mayor Sally Capp’s support, the City of Melbourne approved the photo booth being shifted from next to the station’s Flinders Street turnstiles to the nearby pavement.

Sutherland and Norman now plan to restore 14 more of Adler’s booths, which are in storage and which they also own.

Some of the photo booths awaiting restoration, stored in a northern suburbs warehouse.

At their engagement party last month at Carlton’s John Curtin Hotel, the couple unveiled another booth that now operates there. Adler was guest of honour.

The couple are trying to cut their own paper for the booths after a factory in Russia stopped making it. And chemicals and spare parts for the booths are expensive and hard to find.

They are seeking anyone familiar with 1970s and 1980s electro-mechanical machines to come forward and help get more booths back operating.

The public’s love of photo booths remains strong, they have found.

Says Sutherland: “When everything today is so digital and on your phone and everyone’s in a rush, something that takes three minutes, is on a tangible piece of paper, uses old technology and an old process invented almost 100 years ago, I guess there’s a huge element of magic to that.

“There are very few things to do in the city where a range of people from different backgrounds can enjoy the same activity. It’s quite a unique and magical thing.”

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