The man sat down in the booth, pulled the curtain shut, posed, and waited for the click. He repeated the process at least 445 times over the course of 30 years, from the time of the Great Depression well into the 1960s.
Now, his impressive collection of photobooth snaps is unveiled for the first time at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, as part of “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” an exhibition on display through July.
Don Lokuta, a photography historian, stumbled on these images at an antiques show in New York in 2012. When the dealer told him there were hundreds more like them, he was stunned. “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?' he told Rutgers in an interview.
The snapshots themselves, seen as a collection, are startling: the same face etched into the silver gelatin prints over and over again. Sometimes he’s smiling, at times he looks stern, pensive, or inquisitive. These images force the viewer to seek out the minute differences in his expressions and aging appearance—the evolution from dark, slicked-back hair to a grayish white.
The leading theory behind the photos is that this man was testing the photobooth equipment after repairing it, a narrative similar to that of of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delightful Amélie. In the film, photobooths play a central role in bringing together the shy waitress and her quirky prince, who happens to collect discarded photobooth photos. One man in particular resurfaces time and time again in the pictures. Unlike the film, however, this ostensible repairman kept the evidence of his tests.
In the early stages of putting this exhibit together, Lokuta approached photobooth historian Näkki Goranin, who as it turned out, had photos of the same man. They tracked the man to Michigan, where the images first appeared at an auction, but there the trail grew cold.
Donna Gustafson, the curator of the Zimmerli exhibit hopes it will bring to light more information on this mysterious man. She adds, “if it is true that this was a man just doing his job, he ended up creating something extraordinary.”