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And if you follow any one of them on Instagram, you'll have seen the results: a (usually) black-and-white portrait that looks somehow both perfectly candid and precisely posed, taken from the shoulders up, in which everyone — regardless of age, race, or sex — looks completely flawless.
A flawless face is, of course, the goal of any beauty photographer, Instagram filter, or photo booth rental service, but it's MirMir who has really cornered the market. The company — pronounced not like "murmur" as I originally presumed and instead "meermeer" (like "mirror, mirror, on the wall," as co-founder Ryan Glenn explains) — is now the go-to photo booth for high-profile events like the Oscars, the Emmys, Coachella, wrap parties for TV shows from True Blood to the Tonight Show, events for the New York Times, Marie Claire, GQ, and Esquire, Google's staff holiday party, Kylie Jenner's graduation, and most recently, Gigi Hadid's 21st birthday at The Nice Guy, the LA celebrity set's favorite place to hide from the paparazzi.
Google MirMir, however, and you'll find surprisingly little information. Launched in 2013 by Glenn and co-founder Sean Spencer, the company has done zero marketing, largely because it hasn't had to. Thanks to celebrities sharing their photos on social media, word of mouth (or rather, word of keyboard) has been more than enough.
Its founders, too, are similarly difficult to find online. "Sean and I both are pretty private people, which is interesting because of what we do for a living," Glenn tells Racked during a phone call. "We like to work, and have our lives outside of work. We don't put our names anywhere."
Though the internet won't tell you, Glenn and Spencer both have backgrounds in fine arts and photography. While Glenn was working in fashion in New York City, he was looking for a way to avoid lugging heavy lighting equipment to every job. "I wanted something where we could bring the quality of studio lighting to something minimal and automated, which clearly lent itself to events," he says. "We could bring an editorial take to the general public."
The two separately started their own photo booth rental services, but after meeting at an event, they realized they shared a similar client base. Two years later, they merged into MirMir.
Though based in LA, the photo booth is available to clients in New York, San Francisco, Dallas, and Canada, as long as said client has the $2,750 that MirMir costs for up to four hours (plus extra for gifs and the ability to share directly to social media sites via an iPad).
The rather hefty price tag, however, only serves to prove that MirMir isn't just any old photo booth, and in fact isn't really a booth at all. Instead, it's a device that harnesses the expertise of both photo editing software and good ol' fashioned human intuition. Subjects stand in front of the MirMir device while a screen mirrors their likenesses back to them (hence the name). In place of a countdown, a MirMir staff member, of which there are always at least two at every event, triggers the photo at the moment he or she decides feels right. Within the span of about ten to 15 seconds, the photo runs through MirMir's photo editing software, and a physical copy is printed out on the spot.
Let's talk about that software for a minute. MirMir refers to it as their "skin filter" or their "secret sauce," while customers say it "looks like an SNL portrait." Here in the Racked office, it's known simply as "that Kardashian photo booth look." But even people who have never used a MirMir are fascinated by it. Case in point: About a year ago, a Reddit thread began with a request for a tutorial on how to create the same effect without paying for an actual MirMir photo booth. The best (i.e. most-upvoted) answer Reddit came up with was this: Take a photo, convert it to black and white, decrease the contrast, fade the blacks, reduce the noise, and sharpen it.
A MirMir photo booth. Photo: MirMir
When I ask Spencer and Glenn whether they're familiar with the thread, they laugh. "They were all wrong," Glenn says. "Way off."
"What parts were they wrong about?" I ask.
"All of it," he replies, still laughing. "I'm not going to go into that much detail, but they weren't even in the ballpark."
"I'm guessing you can't really tell me much more about what goes into the software?" I ask.
"Yeah," he replies. "It's not something we discuss. I can tell you it's all custom. Nothing off the shelf."
Instead, they say that the real genius of MirMir is the staff. "There's no one component that we do that makes people look better," Glenn explains. "It's the whole thing: it's the camera, it's the lighting, it's the software, it's the staff knowing what angles look good on each individual person. That's why we have staff there." It's also what they say differentiates them from competitors like The Bosco and MVS Studio. "I don't know anybody else that provides two to three people onsite," Glenn says.
But MirMir is certainly doing something, and it's doing it quickly, and doing it well. To find out what, exactly, I asked James Bareham, creative director of Racked's technology-focused sister site, The Verge, and staff photographer Amelia Krales to give it to me straight: Were the bing bongs on Reddit right? Is that really how to recreate the MirMir effect?
Short answer: nope. "What's interesting about a smoothing filter is, as they say: there's many ways to skin a cat," Bareham says. "You could ask ten different photo editors and they'd tell you ten different ways to do exactly the same thing." They posit that the real genius behind MirMir's software involves a sophisticated facial recognition that can determine which parts of a face to smooth (i.e. use the blend tool), and what to leave alone, like individual hair strands, nostrils, eyes, and lips.
To test this theory, we looked at a MirMir photo of — who else — the Kardashians. "It's very clever," he says. "It's recognizing the eyes, because if you look at the eyelashes here, they're sharp, and here, they're blurred."
Photos, from top left to bottom right: The smoothing filter catches a piece of Kylie's bangs; the outline of Kourtney's mouth; the abruptly smoothed-out crease of Kourtney's under-eye; and the ability of the MirMir to recognize a hairline, as shown on Kendall's forehead.
"You can also see it on Kourtney's under-eyes," Krales adds. "I wonder if that line would have continued." And though the MirMir clearly is able to recognize the start of the hairline, as evidenced on Kendall Jenner, there's one giveaway: Kylie's bangs. "You can see the blurring line on the hair right there," Bareham says. "It's like there's a spray there."
On the subject of the particular Reddit thread, however, he agrees with MirMir's founders. "That wouldn't do it at all," he says, referring to Reddit's theory. "This is blending. Even if you did do what the Reddit thread said to do, that wouldn't make your skin look any different. What [MirMir] is doing is blending everyone's skin so that they have no discernible lines and look like they're made out of plastic."
But even with all the giveaways that a smoothing filter is being overused, Bareham admits that what MirMir is doing is impressive. "What's done is very rudimentary and basic, bad re-touching," he says. "What's clever is that they've automated it. To do that in 15 seconds is really clever."
The celebrities seem to agree, at least. During our phone call, MirMir co-founder Sean Spencer seems almost shocked at their high-profile customers' responses. "The most rewarding thing about it is that a lot of these celebrities are photographed by the top photographers and studios in the world, but yet they give us amazing feedback," he says. "We're essentially a photo booth, and they're still putting us in their Instagram feeds and saying how amazing they look. That's pretty satisfying."