For three decades, starting in the 1930s, he did the same thing. He'd sit inside a photo booth. He'd smile. He'd pose.
And then—pop! pop! pop!—out would pop a glossy self-portrait, in shades of black and white. There he was, staring back at himself ... and grinning. And, sometimes, almost scowling. There he was, mirthful. And, sometimes, almost scornful.
The man—nobody knows who he was—repeated this process 455 times, at least, and he did so well into the 1960s. Nobody knows for sure why he did it. Or where he did it. All we know is that he took nearly 500 self-portraits over the course of thirty years, at a time when taking self-portraits was significantly more difficult than it is today, creating a striking record of the passage of time.
The man's effort is now being shared with the public in the form of a collection being shown at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. "445 Portraits of a Man," the exhibit is appropriately called, takes these early, earnest selfies and presents them as art.
The 445 images were taken during a time when photobooths were hugely popular in the United States—a time when the booths had made the work of selfie-taking newly effortless for their subjects. They invite you—force you—to join this stranger as he ages. As the historian Donald Lokuta explains: “There’s quite an age difference in the photos: You see him as younger man and then with a white, receding hairline and wrinkles."
Lokuta, who owns the photos on display at Rutgers, happened upon a handful of the images in 2012, at a New York City antiques show. At which point the dealer informed him that there were actually had many more images in that vein: hundreds more, actually. “As a historian," Lokuta tells Rutgers, "I knew this was very rare, but on a deeper level, I wondered, ‘Why would somebody want to take almost 500 photos of himself in a photobooth?’"
Why, indeed? Lokuta, based on conversations with a photobooth historian (yes: a photobooth historian), speculates that the man was a photobooth technician who was taking the photos to test equipment after he'd serviced it. Which could be. I like to think something else, though—that he was just a guy who saw a photobooth for what it could be: not just a momentary amusement, but a kind of permanent mirror. There's a friendliness, a frankness, to many of the man's self-portraits; you sense a longing for connection. It's like he's trying to see himself for the first time, all those times.