Sometimes there are children, sometimes there's a festive sign. Sometimes the subject is grinning openly; at other times, he's straight-faced and tight-lipped. But in most of the 445 pictures being shown as part of the Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture exhibition at Rutgers University's Zimmerli art museum, there is one constant: a man. The same man, his picture taken in photo booths across three decades, from the 1930s and 1960s. And nobody knows who he is.
The pictures belong to photo historian Donald Lokuta, who purchased the set after first discovering a few of the pictures at a New York antiques show in 2012. When he realized the seller had hundreds of similar pictures of the same man, he bought them all. "As a historian, 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 photo booth?' In appearance, they are unremarkable. They look like mugshots, but that's what makes them special: The sameness, the repetition."
Little is known about the subject of the pictures — he likely lived in the United States' Midwest and sometimes wore a hat — but the pictures provide a surprisingly personal glimpse into his life. The 445 snapshots clearly show his aging process. His first pictures, taken during the Great Depression, show a stocky, cheerful man with black hair. The newest shots in the collection, taken during the 1960s, show a visibly older version of the same character, his hair white and his face more wrinkled. His broad and easy smile is a constant, making regular appearances across the decades.
He may have worked for the photo booth company, as in the movie 'Amélie'
Lokuta theorized the man worked for a photo booth company and took the pictures after repairing or servicing the booths. That hypothesis — coincidentally a central plot strand from 2001's Amélie — has yet to be confirmed. Lokuta also contacted Näkki Goranin, author of a book called American Photobooth, for help in working out the man's identity. Goranin — who, it transpired, already owned images of the same man — discovered the pictures had been originally purchased at an auction in Michigan.
Donna Gustafson, curator at the Zimmerli museum, says that the unnamed subject's pictures were ahead of their time. "These portraits were taken as early as the 1930s and '40s, before many of us were thinking conceptually about photography." Even if the series was an accident, Gustafson sees their artistic worth in charting a life. "If it is true that this was a man just doing his job, he ended up creating something extraordinary."