Identity of mystery man in series of photobooth portraits revealed as “Uncle Franklyn”

by Felix Esser

posted Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 1:57 PM EST

Back in April, we reported on a series of mysterious photobooth portraits that were taken between the 1930s and 1960s, all showing the same unknown man. The portraits, which number in the hundreds, had been acquired by photography historian Donald Lokuta, who found them at an estate sale. Eager to reveal the identity of the man in each photo, he contacted fellow historian Näkki Goranin, who also owned portraits from the same series.

Their combined efforts led them to the previous owner of the collection, who first acquired it at an auction in Michigan. There, however, the trail ended. Without any further clues, the two speculated that the man who must've been in his thirties to sixties throughout the series, might have worked for a photobooth company, possibly as a technician who would frequently service and then test the photobooths. That would explain the vast number of pictures, and the long time span over which they were taken.

Images courtesy of Rutgers University

Unless someone -- a relative, former co-worker or friend, or decendants of either -- could identify the mysterious man in the pictures, his story would remain a secret, and all guesses as to how they came about would have to remain just that, wild guesses. But it appears that this someone has just been found. According to Rutgers Today, the man's nephew, Tom Trelenberg of Minden, Nevada, identified his uncle while reading about the story of his photobooth portraits on the internet.

Trelenberg recalls to have thought, "Wow, that looks a lot like Uncle Franklyn" when he saw the pictures for the first time. To Rutgers Today, he reveals that he still has very fond childhood memories of his uncle, Franklyn Swantek, who was the proprietor of Swantek Photo Service, one of Michigan's largest operators and distributors of Photomatic photo booths. "I remember helping him tear apart Photomatics that weren’t being used anymore. As payment, he let me keep whatever I found in the coin box," he reveals.

According to Trelenberg, Franklyn Swantek was "a lot of fun, just a cheerful guy," which seems to be an accurate description of the always-smiling man in the photographs. When he passed away in the mid-80s, Swantek probably had no idea that his collected self-portraits which he took while attending to his photobooths would one day be displayed in a museum -- let alone become an international sensation thanks to a new medium called "the internet."

The full story on how Swantek's photos were discovered, as well as the story on how his identity was finally revealed, can both be found over at Rutgers Today. The exhibition featuring Swantek's self-portraits will continue through July 13th at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, NJ.

(via Gizmodo)