An unidentified man took hundreds and hundreds of these small photobooth self-portraits for several decades, beginning in the 1930s. The effect of his series is strangely modern, reminiscent of Web-based projects like Noah Kalina’s “Everyday.” More than 400 of the images stayed together as a collection, and are now on display at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum.
The images are undated and unsorted, but you can make a mental game out of guessing how they might be organized chronologically. The man’s hair grows silver; his face gets craggy. In some frames, he smiles broadly—the grin of a kind uncle or grandfather.
Historian Donald Lokuta told Rutgers’ Patti Verbanas that he purchased the photographs as an anonymous batch from an antique dealer, and managed to trace their provenance to an auction in Michigan. From there, Verbanas writes, “the trail grows cold.”
The photobooth, unveiled in 1926, was an instant hit, and proprietors of carnivals, cinemas, and other places of public amusement jumped to have booths installed in their establishments. Lokuta hypothesizes that the mystery man may have worked for a photobooth company, and may have taken the photos as test images before or after repairing a booth. If this is the case, the rote duty clearly evolved into a meaningful practice, since he saved the results.
Do you recognize this man? Let me know!
The whole collection is on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum, as part of the exhibition “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” through July.