Photobooth mystery man: 445 selfies, but no one knows who he is

At an art museum in New Jersey, 445 haunting self-portraits of the same man, taken decades ago, have become a deepening mystery to photo historians.

Self-portraits were purchased at auction in New York but origins remain a mystery

The collection of 445 self-portraits featuring an unknown man remains a mystery to photo historians about his identity and how the photos came to exist. (Zimmerli Art Museum)

At an art museum in New Jersey, haunting self-portraits taken decades ago are a mystery to photo historians. 

The collection of 445 selfies — all featuring the same man — is entitled Four Hundred and Forty-Five Portraits of a Man. The photographs were purchased at an auction in New York and put on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

The catch? Nobody has any clue who the man is. 

According to Donna Gustafson, the curator of the exhibition, the mystery man appears to be in his 30s in the earliest photographs, and likely in his mid-60s in the last portraits.

"He's always dressed as if he's going to work. He's wearing business attire: a white button shirt and a tie, or a bow tie, and very often he's wearing a jacket. So he looks like a travelling salesman, basically," Gustafson told Carol Off, host of CBC's As It Happens.

"I think that people are fascinated by something that seems to be very ordinary and then sort of takes a leap into the extraordinary — the fact that we have 445 photos of this same man, and we know nothing about him or where they came from. We don't even know how they came to be for sale at the auction in New York," said Gustafson. 

Two theories

The portraits were all likely taken in a Photomatic Photobooth, a contraption invented in the 1920s that remained popular throughout the 1940s that allowed people to take some of the earliest selfies. 

The fact that they all appear to be taken in a Photomatic has spawned two prominent theories about the man and how the photos came to be, Gustafson said. 

"One theory is that he owned a photo shop, so he would take a photo every so often to ensure the machine was working. The second is that perhaps he was a sort of travelling salesman who sold these kind of machines, so he would take photos of himself to demonstrate the machine."

Shortly after the collection went on display in New Jersey, museum officials got word from a collector in Michigan that other photos of the man existed and were purchased at an auction in that state. In some of those photographs, the man appears with children. 

Gustafson is confident that eventually the man's identity will surface, and that perhaps there are hundreds more photographs in existence.

"The odds are pretty good, I think. I'm expecting that someone is going to tell us who he is and eventually tell us his whole story."