Dreamy snapshots of LA's last remaining games arcades

Dreamy snapshots of LA's last remaining games arcades

In an often lonely city, photographer Franck Bohbot captures the intimacy and appeal of retro barcades.

One evening in 2019, photographer Franck Bohbot was driving around the Koreatown neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Having recently relocated from Paris via New York, he’d found himself attracted to the city’s distinct visual aesthetic at night. “I shoot a lot of photography at night – I call it LA Confidential," Bohbot smiles. "[My style] is very inspired by neo-noir movies like Blade Runner, Drive, Blue Velvet and The Dark Knight."

After pulling up on a quiet street, he came across a humble-looking bar with only a soft red light marking its entrance. Deciding that he wanted to see what was inside for himself, he reached for his Leica and walked in. On top of the late-night bar he was expecting he also found an near-empty arcade, fitted with 80s leather furniture and dimly illuminated by rows of retro, coin-operated arcade games.

Top to bottom: BatCade (Burbank, CA) Retrovolt Arcade (CA) Two Bit Circus (LA) Retrovolt Arcade (CA)

"It was super weird and intense. It’s very small, so it reminded me of a speakeasy vibe," he says. "I realised then that I had to do something on arcades, so I was checking on my phone how many there were in southern California and [reading] about their history."

Bohbot spent the next few months driving across Los Angeles’s sprawling greater metropolitan area, from Santa Monica to Pasadena, in search of the neon lights and tall console machines of its arcades. Having visited more than 20 in total, taking photographs swiftly and quietly before moving on to the next spot, a number of his shots are now presented in his new photobook Back to the Arcade.

With washed out, saturated colours and creative framing of machines as subjects, Bohbot’s transportive, dreamlike photographs capture the diverse array of arcades – from the casual beachside spots, to the fresh-faced modern haunts, and those that appear unchanged through the decades. "A lot of gaming comes from Japan," he says. "But California and Chicago have been very involved in the arcade industry and gaming industries, so there’s gaming for kids, for adults, lots of new places and a lot of barcades."

But his shots also document a culture, activity and space that has long been declining in popularity. While some show thriving businesses, others depict rows of empty, untouched machines. Their heydays came in the late 70s and 80s, as the addictive fun of titles like Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Galaxian saw a wave of excitement sweep across the States, East Asia, Europe and beyond. But with rapidly advancing technology, gaming has become more complex, accessible and portable, leaving arcades largely outmoded as people play instead on home consoles and mobile phones – save for some devoted enthusiasts keeping arcade culture alive.

Top to bottom: Button Mash (Echo Park, LA) Neon Retro Arcade (Passadena, CA)

"The owner of Retrovolt Arcade was working in IT in San Francisco, but decided to stop because he was such a huge fan of video games," says Bohbot. "He started to buy a lot of machines and build a small business. Then COVID was super tough. They were considered [to be] like a club, so they couldn’t open, but they survived. I have a lot of respect for these people."

For arcade owners and regular visitors, the value lies in more than just the games they play or the joysticks they toggle. "I think it’s like vinyl," Bohbot says. "It’s like so many things from the past that I think deserves to be alive – especially in LA. It’s good to have places to go and meet people, because I think people are very lonely in this city.

Top to bottom: Family Amusement Corporation (East Hollywood, LA) Blipsy Bar (Koreatown, LA)

"When I was a kid there was always an interaction with someone when you go into the arcade, like when you play against someone," he continues. "This is something that I love, and I saw a lot of people who are passionate about them."

Back to the Arcade is published by Setanta Books.

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