When Broadsheet visits Alan Adler at his photo booth outside Flinders Street Station, so too – coincidentally – does Lord Mayor Sally Capp. She has her photo taken with Adler, immortalising the moment, then the photo joins a stash in his pocket, some of himself, others of people too impatient to wait the three-minute processing time.

Adler has just celebrated his 90th birthday, while the beloved black-and-white coin-operated photo booth has just celebrated its 50th. But this isn’t his one and only; at his height he managed 16 booths across Melbourne, as far as out as Dandenong.

A motor mechanic by trade, the 1932-born Adler got into photo booths half a century ago, when his father’s grocery on Burwood Road in Hawthorn saw a downturn in trade due to the opening of a larger supermarket across the road. “I was looking for something to get my income back up again, and a business was advertised in the Age one Saturday morning. It turned out to be two black-and-white photo booths,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot of money to buy but was showing a profit of $80 a week, which was a lot of money 50 years ago. So, I bought them and built up the business from there.”

Adler comes into the city twice a week to check on the photo booth, change the paper or the chemicals, clean off graffiti and take a test photo of himself. In 50 years, he’s become somewhat of a king of selfies – from a time long before the term “selfie” was even invented – taking them at all the photo booths he operated. And his regular self-portraits have had him dubbed the “most photographed man in Australia”.

He shows us the one he’s just snapped. “It’s probably 8.5 out of 10,” he rates it, noting that the printing paper used to be $100 a roll but is now only made in Russia and costs $700. But that’s not the only obstacle his operation has faced.

In 2018, local photographer Christopher Sutherland was on a date with his now-partner of five years, and they posed for a picture in the photo booth. They discovered a handwritten note urging Melburnians to make use of the relic now because it was to be removed in six days’ time. “I was in a panic – I had only just discovered it,” says Sutherland. “I called the number on the booth the next day and was on the phone to Alan and said I would try and do something about it. Actually, Broadsheet was one of the first to publish the story.”

Sutherland took a handful of photos and put them on Facebook, where he says they were shared 150,000 times. Management at Flinders Street Station had seen the booth as a liability, but the public reaction proved it was inextricably linked to the station’s history. “Chris has been a lifesaver,” says Adler. “After being at the station for 40 years, they gave me 10 days’ notice. Chris cottoned on to that, and there was a public uproar.” So, it was allowed to live on.

Since then, Sutherland has been spending time with Adler to record his story. “I was invited to his 90th birthday the other day,” he says. “So, I think we are finally friends.”

Over the years, the booth has seen lovers, tourists and friends on a night out sit for the three photos and walk away with their little black-and-white souvenir. Adler smiles. “A couple of years back someone said to me that she had had her photo taken in the booth with a boyfriend, but unfortunately the photo lasted longer than the boyfriend.”

Alan Adler’s photo booth is on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth streets.