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Mystery ‘Selfie’ Man Identified As Late Photo Booth Company Operator

445 Photos Of Franklyn Swantek Are On Display At Rutgers
Historic Selfies

This man appears in 445 early 20th century ‘selfies’ now on display at Rutgers University. (Credit: CBS 2)

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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – The identity has been revealed for the mystery man whose series of black-and-white photo booth selfies went on display at Rutgers University earlier this year.

The man appears in 445 black-and-white self-portraits, most of them taken in the first half of the 20th century. The pictures remain on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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

When CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported on the exhibit back in early April, the Zimmerli staff had no clue who the man was.

But Rutgers reported a family member has come forward and identified the man. Tom Trelenberg of Minden, Nevada, read an online article about the exhibit and noticed that the photos looked “a lot like Uncle Franklyn,” Rutgers reported.

In reading through the article, Trelenberg learned that the man might have been from Michigan and a photo booth technician, and concluded for sure that it was his uncle, Franklyn Swantek.

Trelenberg told Rutgers that his uncle built the Swantek Photo Service, which was billed at “Michigan’s largest operators and distributors of Photomatic.” Trelenerg said he often visited his uncle in New Boston, Michigan southwest of Detroit, and called Swantek “a lot of fun, just a cheerful guy.”

Trelenberg said his uncle also owned a plane and was a fisherman who had a cabin and a pontoon boat on Houghton Lake nearby.

Swantek died in the mid-1980s, Trelenberg told Rutgers.

The photos show Swantek over a period of many years. As the years pass, his 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.”

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