“The algorithm does wonders to hair.”
This is what Chris Spencer, a square-jawed man in a suit, said before pulling me in front of his camera, adjusting my face to the most flattering angle possible, and instructing me to flip my hair.
I was at a wedding in downtown New York where Spencer and his production partner — both employees of the Los Angeles–based photography startup Mirmir — were spending the night enthusiastically helping guests of all ages, shapes, and ethnicities look gorgeous in front of a magical hybrid camera-computer. The setup resembled a sparse studio: a Mirmir-branded gray rectangle was propped up on a black steel stand, positioned toward a white backdrop. After my photoshoot, Spencer led me a few steps to the right, where a matching gray printer immediately spat out a few glossy, 4-by-6 copies of my photos. “You look great,” he said charmingly, echoing the tagline printed on Mirmir’s hot-pink business cards, as he handed me the photos. We concluded the session at one of two iPad stands, where I used the Mirmir Extend app to email a few images of myself. “That one’s a new LinkedIn profile pic,” he said encouragingly, pointing at a headshot.
He was right: The photos looked great. That wasn’t simply thanks to Spencer’s precise direction, though. Seconds after snapping my photo, the computer inside that gray box washed my shoulders-up image in the company’s visual “secret sauce,” a black-and-white filter that eliminates human flaws. It made my skin poreless and ageless, so that neither the bags beneath my eyes nor the blemishes on my jawline were detectable. My eyebrows were full and matte, my lips silky. And my hair appeared wispy and light, an almost unrecognizable reimagining of the sweaty mane I had attempted to tame just a few minutes before in the bathroom. (I’m not a monster, but it had been a long, hot day, and I was fully aware you could see that in my appearance.) The best part? I never witnessed the beautifying process — I wasn’t asked to choose a flattering filter or apply some light retouching. That all happened behind the curtain, allowing me to just believe that I looked that good.
If you haven’t heard of Mirmir (pronounced “meer meer”), you have likely spotted its photos in the wild. Since cofounders Ryan Glenn and Sean Spencer (Chris’s brother) worked their first event in May 2013, they have managed to photograph an impressive gaggle of Instagram-friendly celebrities around the world. Any Kardashian scholar can trace photos from the past three years’ worth of the family’s events back to Mirmir, including Kris Jenner’s annual Calabasas Christmas party and the Kimye wedding (one of the first photos to emerge from the occasion, of the newlyweds posing in matching leather “Just Married” jackets, was taken by a Mirmir camera). Other notable subjects include Taylor Swift, Gigi Hadid, Pharrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kit Harington — it’s a varied, ever-growing list. The famous names naturally continue to pop up, since the company books gigs for the Oscars, the Emmys, Coachella, magazines, major tech companies, and elaborate bar mitzvahs. After each event, famous and nonfamous guests post their flawless portraits online, and, inevitably, more inquiries pour into Mirmir’s website.
People have loved photo booths for decades, even before they knew that celebrities used them. In 1889, a man premiered a coin-operated device at the Paris World’s Fair, demonstrating the ability to stamp an exposure on a thin metal plate in under five minutes. (It was just as underwhelming as it sounds. The magazine La Nature later wrote, “A portrait could barely be seen and was often unrecognizable.”) By 1925, a Russian immigrant named Anatol Josepho managed to patent a contraption called the Photomaton — a curtain-enclosed booth he prototyped and premiered in Harlem. There, visitors could pay 25 cents, take eight automatic photos, and wait eight minutes for the Photomaton to print out the strip. Because the average person didn’t have access to a camera, let alone a studio to develop film in, the invention was an immediate hit. Over the decades, Josepho’s invention has been mass-produced, imitated, and reinvented in various forms, becoming commonplace in bars, restaurants, music festivals, retail stores — and even, recently, the back of one woman’s bike. The retro feeling of the photo booth has become even more attractive in the digital age. You can find its old-school aesthetic digitally re-created in an endless number of photo editing apps.
Mirmir’s success, however, is rooted in a proprietary technology that’s contained inside that rectangular gray camera — digital smoke and mirrors that made me look and feel undeniably fabulous. Since the dawn of Instagram, social media networks have provided tools to manipulate the mediocre photography of the masses, allowing us to blur, brighten, and fade photos; more recently, there’s been software that widens eyes, thins faces, and smoothes skin. Mirmir’s image-modifying algorithm, which is automatically applied to every photo it snaps, has blended these techniques to produce a single flattering aesthetic that Glenn says is best described as “editorial.” (A hat tip, perhaps, to the magazine photo editors who spend hours using Photoshop, shaving stretch marks off of celebrity thighs.) Thanks to the social media crumbs left by the celebrity party circuit, Mirmir’s technology has transformed into a kind of brand-name filter — something you can access only if you’re a Kardashian, or have Kardashian money to pay a starting fee of $2,750 for a night with equipment and attendants. The posh look has become so coveted that fans have sought advice on how to re-create it. A few months ago, a reporter at Racked went so far as to consult her Photoshop-savvy colleagues on the technology, concluding that “the real genius behind MirMir’s software involves a sophisticated facial recognition that can determine which parts of a face to smooth … and what to leave alone.” Basically, Mirmir’s algorithm knows how to fix you without making you look fixed.
Regardless of whether Mirmir’s image processing can be replicated, the word-of-mouth hype has already doubled its event requests, from 30 to 60 a month. That’s a seismic shift in what Glenn and Spencer had originally expected to be a reliable, if modest, two-man business. It wasn’t until venture capitalists who had been Mirmir clients asked about investing that the founders realized their potential to expand. Now, after finding an advisory board member, the duo is considering how their business — which has equipment and photography staff stationed in Dallas, L.A., Montreal, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto — can extend its reach.
“We’ve gone from a small business to a startup, which seems a little odd,” Glenn admitted when I visited Mirmir’s North Hollywood office in July. “But there’s enough content that you’re like, ‘Oh, this actually could be a startup.’ We’re a software-based company. It’s not like we’re making a toothbrush.”
What Glenn and Spencer plan to do with that software is a closely kept secret. Asked if they’re planning to release a consumer-facing app — a normal next step for nearly any software-based business — Glenn offered a cryptic response. “We have a lot of things in the works,” he said. “But I will say this: We don’t do anything until it is perfected. It could be two days, it could be two years, but when we feel like it’s ready, we’ll put it in the world.”
This much was evident the day that I visited their barely furnished office, an unassuming single-story building obscured by an iglesia pentecostes and a gated apartment building. When I walked in, the two were hammering the leg of a ping-pong table, a recent purchase that Glenn admitted was “a stereotypical prerequisite for every startup.” They’d just had a local graffiti artist come in and paint the wall of their shared office with the same bright-pink hue they use on their business cards, and there were tentative plans to begin pinning their hallway wall with some of their photographers’ favorite event shots. In the meantime, the only signature Mirmir photo on display was in their bathroom, a joyful photo of David Lynch shot in 2013 at their very first event (where they also fondly recall photographing Hilary Duff). Despite having plenty of space in the office, they had mysteriously stored all of their Mirmir equipment behind a door at the back, a space they called “R&D.” I was not allowed inside.
Whatever beautifying advancements are or are not happening behind that door, taking time to tinker is how Mirmir got its start. Glenn and Spencer were introduced by a mutual friend in 2011 while working a Super Bowl event in Dallas. The two were both art school graduates who’d worked in various producer roles and shared compatible opinions on what looked good and what didn’t. “We had a lot of similar goals and ideas of what event photography could be,” Glenn said. “And beyond event photography, the selfie world, the beautification world.” Their frustrations centered on a general lack of quality, whether that meant dated equipment, kitschy props, or bad service. Many of the photo booths they had encountered were built with bad lighting and soft-focus lenses — the type of archaic contraptions you might find in the corner of a dive bar. In their eyes, most event-photography services weren’t living up to the caliber of major awards shows or elegant weddings they were hired to work.
“I think everything we were looking at were Hondas and Kias, and we were ready for the BMWs and Mercedes,” Glenn said. “You sit in a Bentley, you know that leather is Horween, you know that those stitches were done by hand. You sit in a Honda — not that they’re bad cars, they’ll last you forever — but the quality isn’t there. They do their job, just like an outdated photo booth, but they’re going to have cloth seats and a terrible radio.”
Aside from creating a product that was sleek enough to blend in with the most haute environments, it was especially important to Spencer that guests receive professional direction while posing for a photo. Rather than use sequin bow ties and oversize sunglasses to distract from subjects, he wanted to incorporate guests’ existing accessories, like cuff links or glasses, as “natural props.”
“Typically the old-school photo booth would be stuck in the corner, maybe they grab a cheesy prop, and they take awkward pictures,” Spencer said. “Most people aren’t professional models, and when they get in front of a camera, it’s just a deer in headlights. We saw this as an opportunity to put a professional photographer next to our hardware and give people creative instruction.”
I benefited from this “creative instruction” at the Mirmir-enabled wedding I attended. For four hours, Chris Spencer and his fellow Mirmir attendant, Jeffrey Jordan, fastidiously arranged eager guests, adjusting their shoulders, draping their arms in as flattering a way possible, and sometimes even encouraging them to act out mini scenarios. The two popped Altoids, checked their teeth, and adjusted their ties in between sessions to ensure they, too, looked presentable.
At one point, an elderly woman walked up to an acquaintance who had just had her photo taken and inquired why a crowd had formed around the photo booth. “What is that?” she asked. “Oh, I love it,” the other woman replied. “They make everyone look like a movie star.” Then she made a slightly drunken gesture, circling her hand around her face. “Flawless.”