Welcome to the Dollhouse

The Big Allure of Tiny Photography

I was thinking of you when I ducked under the curtain of that strange new photo booth in Penn Station, just inside the subterranean Kmart there. A black-haired cartoon girl, perky and Japanimated, winked and chirped at me from the video screen. "Let's try it!" she coaxed in delicately accented English, and as I fed three dollar bills into the slot below the screen, I was thinking of you.

The cartoon girl showed me all the different borders and tones I could choose from: picture frame, heart-shaped frame, balloons and teddy bears, all this and more in sepia, black and white, or color. I chose color, and a simple letter-box border inscribed with generic subtitles: For you. Thank you. I love you. The cartoon girl gave me three tries to get my pose right, and I never quite did. The grid of 16 thumbnail photographs slid out of its slot with me just slightly chipmunk-faced and hunchbacked in every one.

When I got home I found you slumped in despair before the blinking cursor of a blank computer screen, brokenhearted at the dumb, catlike habit words have of refusing to come when asked. One look at your face and I despaired also: I had no words to talk you out of your sadness. So I walked over to your computer monitor instead, peeled one of the 16 stickers off the grid, and stuck it to the upper-left-hand corner of the frame, a piece of me right there where I would want to see a piece of you at such a moment, and just the way I'd want to see it, too: tiny, uncomplicated, and contained, a bright, calming dot that floats at the edge of harder things, that promises to stay there even when you or I happen to be one of those things.

You saw the photograph and laughed. And when you reached out to touch it, I noticed this: the tip of your finger covered my face entirely.

How long have we been dreaming of these tiny pictures? The world-historical answer, I suppose, would look all the way back past miniature paintings, locket portraits, and landscape carvings embedded in nutshells to the smallest figurines found in the deepest archaeological digs. But for me? I'm pretty sure it started with the matchbox-size "spy" camera I ordered from a comic-book ad when I was 11 years old.

I don't think I wanted to do any spying with it (if I had, wouldn't I have ordered the X-ray vision glasses also?). I presume, rather, that it was the sheer smallness of the thing that compelled me to have it. I think, too, it was the thought that from so minuscule a device there could only come images just as heartbreakingly tiny— that I might point the camera at the world around me and render that world so small and cute that I could hold it between thumb and forefinger, and never fear it. But the camera, it turned out, was defective, and I was too young and cowed by the world of commerce to send it back for replacement. Eventually I sold it at a yard sale.

One day last winter I came across that strange new photo booth in the Penn Station Kmart, and there they were: the tiny photographs of my dreams. And soon there were more. The sticker booths were sighted in Soho, in Herald Square, on lower Broadway. In June, Nintendo started selling a $49.95 digital camera, an add-on to its hand-held Game Boy, with a $59.95 printer that spews adhesive ribbons of stamp-size black-and-white snapshots. And now, even as you read this, Polaroid is preparing the North American launch of the $19.99 Xiao, a camera that takes instant color prints the size of Wheat Thins.

That all of these products originated in Japan is apparently no coincidence. The Japanese, we are told, have a peculiar attraction to the miniature. And adolescent Japanese females, especially, seem to love nothing more these days than the miniature and photographic. Buying and trading little pictures of each other in a frenzy of socialization ("Japanese girls put these stickers on everything," a U.S. photo-booth sales director told The New York Times, "their notebooks, their clothing, their bags, you name it"), they are by all accounts the main motive force behind the current boom.

But speaking as a 35-year-old white North American male who has held in his own hands an advance unit of the ravishingly small and frivolous Xiao, who looks forward to the day (sometime next year) when Polaroid will sell him one all his own, who will make a point of loading it with the special sticky-backed version of the film so that he can clutter up the surfaces of his life with faces and sights already attached to his heart— I am here to tell you: demographics are no defense against the seductions of tiny photography.

Now, let us not mince words in the face of excellence: Adam "Adrock" Pearson, age 14, resident of the 913 area code, has created and maintains the finest Game Boy camera site on the World Wide Web (members.tripod.com/~gbcamera).

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