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Mystery Man’s Early 20th Century ‘Selfies’ On Display At Rutgers

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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Selfies from another century are at the center of a monochrome mystery at Rutgers University.

As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, the man appears in 445 black-and-white self-portraits, most of them taken in the first half of the 20th century.

The photographs are just 2 1/2 inches by 3 inches. But there are so many of them – all together in a 9-foot-long display case – on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers.

The “selfies” – which of course predated the slang term by many decades – were taken on an old-fashioned Photomatic machine.

“We don’t know who he is. We don’t know anything about him,” said Donna Gustafson of the Zimmerli Art Museum. “All we know is that he took these pictures of himself time after time after time, and he saved them all.”

In most of the pictures, the man is wearing a tie. Occasionally, he donned a hat or had a pipe.

As the years pass, the man’s advancing age is evident.

“It’s an extraordinary, sort of beautiful representation of a life lived,” Gustafson said.

Historian Donald Lokuta found the pictures in a bag at an antiques show, and immediately recognized the cumulative impact of displaying the pictures all together.

“It’s like looking at yourself every day in the mirror and just making a photograph just as a record of your existence,” Lokuta said. “He’s not trying to make art. He’s just making a photograph.”

Trying to figure out why that man sat for all those Photomatic portraits, one obvious theory comes to mind.

Unlike contemporary photo booths – digital, quick, and chemical-free, the Photomatic needed maintenance. Perhaps the man worked for the company and took the took the pictures as a test, Aiello reported.

“I love the mystery, and I’m not sure I’m going to be happy to find out who he was,” Gustafson said.

A photo historian is working to identify the man.

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