Black and white photos with people smiling at the camera have recently been trending on Instagram. From models, actors and singers to families, friends, and even pets, the pictorials vary. One peculiar thing about these pictures is that the subject in the picture is always holding a small remote in one hand. The photo booth where these special pic- tures are taken is a photo studio called “Photomatic”. The Hanyang Journal was able to interview Hong Seung-hyun, the CEO of Photomatic.
I. Hong Seung-hyun as a photographer
Q. What was the starting point of your career and how did you come up with the idea of a “self-portrait studio”?
A. I used to be an animal photographer and started my business at a place called <Thank You Studio>, but I realized I didn’t really like having myself photographed by another person. I disliked it so much that I took my ID picture at home, and I started to gain interest in other areas of photography which is what I’m doing now. So, I started Photomatic with a friend and built my way up here. I thought I’d just give it a try. Luckily, people liked it more than I thought they would, which made me continue with the business.
Q. When did you take your first photo? Do you remember what exactly your first photograph was?
A. The first picture I ever took was for my school homework. After graduating from the photography department, I worked in a fashion studio, but I didn’t want to take pictures myself. Instead, I wanted to create a ‘content’ so that I wouldn’t have to take pictures. I thought it would be fun if I could just set the content and the concept, and leave my employees to take pictures. When I was a student, I didn’t study much because I was not interested in it. At first, I wanted to major in business administration but teachers told me that I’d have to study hard if I wanted to succeed in that area. Thus, I chose to major in photography, where I can just take pictures; but ironically, I didn’t really like taking pictures.
Once I had the chance to take a picture for a magazine named Bling with my friends who worked with me at the studio. Some of them had learned photography while others had not, but regardless of whether they studied photography or not, they just loved taking pictures. They would work hard to grab the chance to shoot the cover photo of a magazine, which made me think that it would be impossible to be better than someone who really enjoys what they’re doing.
Q. Do you have a favorite photographer or a photo style that you prefer?
A. There’s no particular photographer that I like. I believe that a good photo is one that is good for the eye which could be anyone’s photo, even one taken by an amateur or a child.
Q. There are so many people that visit to Photomatic every day. Was there any photo that was memorable to you?
A. I remember when elementary school kids visited to take a group photo. They were so cute because they were just playing with the remote control. ‘Playing’ with each other rather than taking a photo at a studio made them appear natural on camera.
II. Photomatic: A Studio Without a Photographer
Q. Is there a special reason you chose to open a self-portrait studio that stands between a self-studio and a normal studio?
A. I just gave it a go.I once opened a cereal shop named <Midnight in Seoul> with my travel mates, and it was the first cereal shop in Korea. People loved it. We even made our own cereal, and celebrity Jo Kwon also ran our business. I just enjoy trying new things and discovering something that doesn’t already exist. Also, when I was 28, I ran a restaurant, and this was also because I wanted to try something new. I always try new businesses to an extent where I can take the responsibility even if the business goes bankrupt. I started Photomatic for the same reason: to start something original.
Q. What made you choose a method where people take their own picture without a professional photographer?
A. I was inspired by the pictorials of a lookbook from a self-portrait studio in England. Then I questioned ‘why would people become stiff when the photographer is holding the camera right in front of them, while they’re actually really good at taking selfies?’ People tend to become stiff and unnatural when a camera or light is directly on them. Therefore, I came up with the idea of providing the studio and everything else needed to take a photo and leaving people to take their own photos by simply clicking a button. I tried a test- run, and people seemed so natural and were genuinely enjoying the moment. They showed the facial expressions that even the most famous photographers couldn’t capture through their lenses. I thought, ‘this must be it’.
Q. Is there a reason why most of the pictures are black and white?
A. People tend to use the ‘black and white’ filter on Instagram when they’re not satisfied with their selfie. It’s because of the skin tone. Taking pictures in black and white is more natural than in color, and people generally tend to look better in black and white photos. Celebrities are not the only customers that we have so I thought that anyone could be satisfied with the black and white filter.
Q. Photomatic is loved by people in their 20s and 30s. What do you think the reason is?
A. Most of the businesses that I run target young people in their 20s and 30s. Photomatic targeted this age group because taking selfies is actually a big part of their culture. Furthermore, I thought that young people would enjoy pictures that they could take by themselves comfortably in a professional environment.
Q. There are many studios these days like Sihyunhada that are different from the traditional styles and methods of photography. What makes Photomatic special out of all of them?
A. Sihyunhada has nice content. I think it’s very important for a business to have distinctive content. For example, there are many apps these days that try new things such as making your pet huge while making you tiny. Taking your photo by yourself in order to create the best photo of yourself is also a new type of content. It’s like a mission to take the best photo in a limited amount of time.
III. Photomatic: Plans for 2020
Q. The number of local photo studios began to increase after dwindling for some time. As a photographer, why do you think people are looking for photo studios again?
A. Newtro and film cameras are gaining popularity again. These days, both teenagers and people in their 20s or 30s don’t even know what disposable cameras are. They don’t know that photos were developed at processing laboratories and find it interesting that you have to wait for a photo to come out. These things are all old memories for us, but for the younger generation, it is rather ‘new’. I think that is why the number of photo studios is increasing these days. I’m also planning to renew such memories in newtro style and introduce such things to the younger generations.
Q. Photomatic has been increasingly receiving the spotlight from many people and has become a trend in 2019. Do you have any plans regarding Photomatic in 2020?
A. My plan is to open a photo processing lab. Honestly, I thought Photomatic would go bankrupt in 6 months. I thought it would just be a temporary boom, but the popularity is lasting longer than I thought. So, I think it is extremely important to use this time to work on the brand itself to make it stay in a league of its own. There are so many studios trying to copy our content even now, and this is because it is too easy to copy; you just have to connect a line to the pre-existing equipment. So, we are going to work on widening gaps between us and other brands by launching a photo processing lab where people can have more fun using film cameras by, for example, adjusting the tone of their film.
Q. Do you have any tips for people who have interest in photography?
A. Just take as many photos as you can. It is important to take a lot of photos. In the past, you had to study for five to six years to become a fashion photographer but these days, you don’t even need to major in photography. I think it’s rather the people who didn’t major in photography that are better photographers because they don’t frame themselves in the theories and rules that they learned. You will find your own style while having fun taking photos. Do something that you really like.
Q. How do you want Photomatic to be remembered?
A. Photo=Photomatic. I want people to think of Photomatic when they think of the word ‘photo’. There are so many famous fashion photographers and studios, but do they really have content? Photomatic has content and is trying harder to find more.
Q. Do you have anything you want to say or advice for the Hanyang University students who are reading this interview?
A. Never think that it is too late. I found something that I really want to do in my 30s. It is important to try many things and experience different things at your age. Some of my employees in their late 20s once told me that all they know is photography because that’s what they learned in college. I told them that it is not late to try something else. Even if you learned photography for ten years, it is worthy to try something else, something that you can truly enjoy. I found out that I like to make content while trying different things. While many people tried to take the best photos, I tried to make content. And that’s all I thought of. A photographer that runs a photo studio but doesn’t take photos!
Everyone has their own different lifestyle, but I am sure that you can do anything in your 20s. Even if you’re outgoing in your 20s, you don’t know what’ll happen to you in the future, and even if you think you’re a failure, you could succeed in the future.
Even today, I have so many questions and new things that I want to try. I minimize the risk and give it a try. I just want to say that you really need to find something that you want to and like to do.