Among the 60,000 glass lantern slides Julia Gearhardt was sorting, one image stood out: the fuzzy face of a man and, above him, the top sections of columns and a ceiling.
"I have never in my life seen a glass lantern slide focused on the photographer," said Gearhardt, a collections curator at Princeton University's Department of Art & Archaeology. "Some of them can be kind of goofy, but these types of slides were intended for teaching lectures."
The slide was in a drawer labeled "Thomas Jefferson," Gearhardt said, and was labeled with the presumed picture taker's name, Theodore Fred Kuper. After some sleuthing, Gearhardt connected the photo to the University of Virginia Rotunda, which features trademark columns and a plaster eagle on its south portico that dates back to an 1890s renovation.
Kuper, born in 1886 in Russia, was a lawyer and director of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation who helped to buy and preserve Monticello in 1923. He remained the foundation's director until 1935. He also served as the law secretary for the New York City Board of Education and helped to start the Fashion Institute of Technology, according to his obituary in The New York Times. He died in 1981.
Other photos in Kuper's file are more clearly instructional, Gearhardt said, and display the beauty and architecture of Monticello.
UVa hailed the find on social media earlier this month, asking, "Is this the first selfie ever taken on Grounds?" While university archives contain many earlier depictions of the Rotunda and Grounds, there seems to be no earlier example of a photographic self-portrait.
"It could be a mistake," Gearhardt said of the apparent self-portrait. "Or he intentionally wanted to display some sort of unique perspective."
Gearhart said she has reached out to Monticello to see if the institution wants the slides.
UVa has asked alumni and enterprising archivists to submit any earlier examples to firstname.lastname@example.org. So far, according to social media specialist Kelly Kaufman, no one has.