‘Charm in a stolen kiss’: Graham Loft, Bay Area photo booth impresario, dies just before 42

Chances are the next time you use a San Francisco bar photo booth, it’s one made by Graham Loft.

Loft was killed on August 11 when a car hit and killed him while riding his red motorcycle near Market and Danvers streets. He was the co-founder of Glass Coat Photo Booth, a company that rented and built custom booths and specialized in booth image technology.

Founded in 2010, the company has created a mini photo booth empire, dotting watering holes on both sides of the Bay Bridge with its creations and attracting orders from LinkedIn and the Grammys. Customers who wanted to intimately document personal events such as weddings and birthdays also rented them. So, it was only right that we bring one to the Loft memorial.

Loft died four days before his 42nd birthday. That Thursday morning, he made sure a slow cooker filled with his family’s dinner was cooking before he left the house. A few days later, his wife, Pia, marked the traffic light at the intersection with a map. She signed a message on behalf of their two children, Niko, 4 and a half, and Remy, 2 and a half. “We love you and miss you.”

Eearly life

Loft was born Graham Michael French on August 15, 1980 in Memphis, Tennessee. In college, his mother Mary Hall and Loft landed in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where every day Loft, then a bleached-blonde teenager, skated at Collins Hill High School. He participated from 1995 to 1999.

It was the 90s, and Loft proved he was a fan of skate culture by erecting a self-made altar in his childhood bedroom: from floor to ceiling, there were images of skateboarding icons that Loft cut out of magazines. Only the hawk-eyed guests discovered that Loft had cheekily replaced some of the skateboarders’ faces with his own. “That was before Photoshop,” added childhood friend Matthew Baranauskas.

“We were lost boys who found each other,” said childhood friend Wes Duvall.

As the leader of their daredevil group, Loft convinced his friends to sneak into Atlanta after curfew and plot pranks against his younger brother, Robert. “Do you remember that?” Robert jokingly accused a few of Loft’s friends during last week’s memorial at the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park. That game where Loft would pin Robert to the ground and hit his sternum until the younger brother managed to list 10 fruits?

Despite her mischievous antics, Georgia couldn’t contain Loft’s spirit. At age 10, Loft told her mother, “When I grow up, I want to travel the world,” Mary recalled at the memorial. “And he did.”

After high school, Loft ventured to Canada, England, Spain, Egypt and Asia. He took a bicycle and photography trip to Tibet and China, where he dodged the police and learned firsthand that yak meat was not one of his favorite foods. Friends remember Loft gifting Polaroid photos to Tibetan families he met.

San Francisco Days

In 2001, Loft moved to San Francisco “to pursue his love of skateboarding”. This love would lead him, unusually, to church, where a skateboarding devotee could stand out. He caught the attention of Danny Whiteley, who considers that day the start of a long friendship.

The pair quickly bonded over alternative music and shredding. Whiteley, at the time art director of skateboarding magazine Mocker, prompted Loft to take independent musical photos of long-admired stars and musicians. The couple saw Billy Idol at Warfield and Loft photographed Moby’s Los Angeles home for an architecture magazine. Whiteley and Loft started a band, Frank White, a riff of their surnames.

To complement his freelance work, Loft has valued. He also enrolled in photography classes at City College, spending his days in a darkened room.

Meanwhile, an opportunity to buy a barn full of cheap mopeds presented itself and Loft, when he was generally going about life, took it. Loft took a Puch Magnum and decided his friends and others should start a moped band. If you drive mopeds, we want you, his Craiglist ads would say. In 2004, San Francisco’s moped army, Creatures of the Far, was born.

If a creature needed to fix a broken bike, Loft would do it for a trade. Loft built a custom moped for his friend Chuck Donoghue, who rewarded him with tattoos. He and Zach Levenberg broke an informal moped record for their trip to South America.

In 2008, friends said, Loft became a photo assistant. Then the recession hit, along with the realization that an economic downturn didn’t sit well with a freelance career. With a friend, Loft started Glass Coat Photo Booth, a bespoke photo booth and rental business.

“We just saw that there are no photo booth rental companies out there and we decided to build one and bide our time while things work out,” Loft told me in an interview at his workplace earlier this month. “And then the business kind of took off,” Loft said. He loved how photo booths appealed to a time when there was still “charm in a stolen kiss.”

Fittingly, Loft spent two decades doing this work as part of an artist collective at the Heinzer Warehouse. Despite the chaotic and eerie figures that filled the crumbling space, Loft’s worktable was always tidy, said Ethel Brennan, an artist who shared a space with him for seven years. During the pandemic, the couple discussed parenting, art and unconventional health advice.

Loft, a fan of socks and shoes, eating meat straight from the bone and drinking butter coffee, tried to convert his friends to these practices. “I said, I never wear toe shoes,” Brennan told him when Loft showed up with a pair.

Open to his health advice, however, was Pia, his future wife. Loft laid eyes on Pia during a yoga class for the people, where she slipped away elusively before he could approach her. Loft resorted to missed Craiglists connections to land a date. “She basically came to dinner one night and never left,” Levenberg recalled.

The couple tied the knot at City Hall in 2015 and celebrated at a Hawaiian-themed party at Alexander Valley Lodge in Northern California. A photo they took there — Loft in a goofy expression and Pia kissing his cheek — would be the first image customers would see on the Glass Coat Photo Booth Yelp page. “Only the highest quality images ALL THE TIME!” the caption reads. The couple welcomed two children, Niko, in 2017, and Remy in 2020, whose images feature prominently on Loft’s Instagram.

When the pandemic hit, business for photo booths plummeted. Undeterred, Loft turned into “Handy Graham” and did odd jobs. “He told me once that he screwed in a light bulb for someone for $100,” Whiteley said.

Graham Loft of Glass Coat Photo Booth in his section of the studio at the Heinzer Warehouse. Ahead is a photo booth he designs for the Almanac Beer Co. brewery in Alameda. Photo taken by Annika Hom, August 10, 2022.
Graham Loft of Glass Coat Photo Booth. Loft was a tenant of the Ernie Heinzer Warehouse. Photo taken by Annika Hom, August 8, 2022.

In 2022, orders resumed. He took time off to take a moped trip to Utah, “a major trip on the to-do list,” Donoghue said, before returning to work. In a recent text to another friend said, “4-5 more cabins and I can bring this family to Hawaii :)”.

This summer, Loft learned that the Heinzer warehouse he had worked in for a dozen years would be sold. He fretted over his unfinished projects, including a photo booth he designed for Almanac Beer Co. in Alameda. He got another job in El Cerrito, where his family moved, but would still cry about losing his “foothold” in the city. He treasured the warehouse for friendships.

“There were so many people coming in and out of the building, people I wouldn’t normally meet. So many artists,” Loft said. About an artist, Erik Otto, he said: “I will know him for the rest of my life, you know?

He did.

Learn more about Loft here.

Jack C. Nugent