Old Tyme Photos at Sonoma County Fair offers to help fire survivors recover photos lost in the October wildfires
For decades, families have trekked through the corn dog stands, funnel cake purveyors and pretzel vendors at the Sonoma County Fair to capture a special moment in time, donning Victorian lace corsets and cowboy hats for a sepia-toned photograph steeped in nostalgic kitsch.
The Old Tyme Photo Booth has rented space at the Sonoma County Fair since 1974, attracting a number of repeat customers, including Sonoma County families that have returned for years to take light-hearted portraits.
After the October firestorm devastated large swaths of Sonoma County in 2017, booth owner Amber Alexander-Greene realized she was sitting on a trove of photographs that could belong to customers who lost their homes in the flames.
Now, Alexander-Greene wants to give back to the customers who’ve supported her for so long.
From her small western-themed trailer, Alexander- Greene, 35, saved more than a decade of photographs from her business on a hard drive, amassing 50,000 photos from Sonoma County alone. A dozen or so line the outside of her booth, showcasing smiling faces underneath wide-brimmed cowboy hats.
“Photos are something that are irreplaceable,” said Alexander-Greene, who said she’s lost a lot of people in her family, a fact that helps her empathize with those enduring hardship. For the greater good, she said, she wants to donate her time and money to connect fire victims with their old photographs.
Alexander-Greene said she’d like to ultimately make the photos open-source and provide them for free to fire victims. To do this, she said, she needs to connect with an attorney who can advise her on the legality of such a move, and an internet-savvy assistant to engineer the technical side of making the photos open-source.
“If I could replace just one photo for one fire victim, and that makes them happy, then my job has been done,” Alexander- Greene said.
So far, she has connected with two families that lost their homes to the fires. Doug Swanson, who lived in Fountaingrove until the Tubbs fire swept through his neighborhood on the night of Oct. 8, had a whole wall of photos from the Old Tyme booth in his home. All were lost when the house burned.
“It’s a form of PTSD. The things that matter are the things that can’t get replaced,” Swanson said.
Swanson, his wife, Carol, and now 15-year-old son, Kaden, had their first family photo taken at the booth in 2003, when Kaden was less than a year old. The family continued to take photos at the booth annually until 2017.
“It was cool, because you could see everybody growing up,” Swanson said. The family grew in 2006 with the addition of their son, Shane, now 11.
Swanson took pictures of about five years of photos with his cellphone before the fires took his home, but lost all of the original copies. When Alexander-Greene told him she had proofs of 14 years of his family’s photographs, he was amazed.
“I got so emotional yesterday when I started looking at them,” Swanson said on Wednesday. “It’s tough, it’s really hard to look at. It’s a hard thing to go back and remember.”
The photo booth was originally started by her grandparents, Mike and Judy Alexander, in the early 1970s. Alexander-Greene was interested in photography from a young age, and began taking photos at the Old Tyme booth in 1998. Two antique camera cases from her grandparent’s original booth remain in her photo set, along with a collection of original costumes.
She said her family has a long legacy at the Sonoma County Fair. Her daughter Kelly, 10, and son Hunter, who turned 13 on Thursday, have grown up alongside the business. Her husband, who she met 14 years ago at the fair, runs a booth that sells carved redwood signs.
Alexander-Greene expects it will take at least a year to connect fire survivors to their lost photos, but said she will attempt to find everyone that she can.
“If you are able to help someone, you should help them,” she said.
Alexander-Greene can be contacted in the Old Tyme Photo booth at the Sonoma County Fair, which ends Sunday, or at her email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct a misspelling in the surname of Amber Alexander-Greene. A previous version of the story also misidentified her daughter, Kelly.