I Visited a Fancy Passport Photo Studio and Left With a Photo That Doesn’t Look Like a Mugshot
Luxe luggage brand Rimowa is saving New York’s jetsetters one photobooth session at a time
Over the course of the past nine years and three months, I have been routinely forced to gaze upon the same photo of a box-dyed-haired, too-tanned, 21-year-old version of myself taken under the fluorescent lighting of my hometown CVS. To make matters worse, I’m also periodically forced to show it to other people, namely for the sake of being granted access into another country or, for that matter, reentry into my own. I’m talking, as you’ve probably guessed, about my passport photo, which, despite its significance, could also just as easily pass as my mugshot.
I’m willing to bet this probably resonates with you on some level. In a narrative history of the passport photo published in Atlas Obscura in 2017, Natasha Frost wrote, “Even with acceptance, there remained a feature of passport photos that people have always disliked: the way they look in them. A New York Times editorial from 1930 seized upon this middle-class anxiety and described passport pictures as ‘notoriously unpleasant and unflattering. The mildest mannered man looks like a thug or a gunman, and a bright eyed miss becomes a heavy-featured half-wit. Few travelers ever feel anything but a pang of horrid surprise, almost disbelief, upon first looking at the photograph which is to identify them in a foreign country.’”
In other words, bad passport photos are practically ingrained in our nation’s history of photo-based identification. The good news is that the solution to this apparently indiscriminate problem may have finally arrived, thanks to Rimowa. In its latest installment of a passport photo studio at its flagship location in Soho (99 Prince St), the high-end luggage brand has totally reimagined the traditionally grisly passport photo. And so — because if you’ve done the math, you know that my passport expires in April of next year — I of course wasted no time in checking out the studio for myself.
It’s rather nondescript, in that if you didn’t know what it was, you might mistake it for a design element or even something structural. But once inside, the Passport Studio — which opened mid-June — offers a comfortable, private and elevated alternative to the run-of-the-mill passport photo experience we’ve all become accustomed to, with an architectural divider separating the space from the main retail floor. It’s reminiscent of a hotel or bar photo booth, only with exceptionally good lighting, adjustable seating and polite nudges from the automated system to help you secure the best possible shot.
Totally self-service, it’s a remarkably seamless process once you’ve found it. I was admittedly a little worried about catching stares from Rimowa patrons, but a sliding door allows for total privacy, providing you the freedom to snap a 2×2” portrait (or several) in peace. Of course, the parameters — of which you will be reminded in the booth, prior to taking the photo — are regrettably still the same: no eyeglasses, taken with a neutral expression, no hats or anything that might obscure your hairline, in clothes that you would wear regularly, etc. That said, anytime I’m not smiling in a photo, I automatically take on the appearance of a serial killer in waiting, and I was extremely pleased with the photos I managed to capture.
After you’ve landed on a photo you can live with for the next decade or so, you have the option to either print it on custom Rimowa photo paper, email a digital copy to yourself for safekeeping or both. To sweeten the pot further, it’s a complimentary service and appointments aren’t required. And while I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to take advantage, if it takes you a few tries to get a good shot? That’s okay, too, which is — in my opinion — the Passport Studio’s greatest appeal.
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