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Home | News | Regional | If you thought selfies were a new craze, think again: Amazing self-portraits taken by pioneering photographer in 1909 put Instagram to shame

If you thought selfies were a new craze, think again: Amazing self-portraits taken by pioneering photographer in 1909 put Instagram to shame

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  • Tom Byron shared on Quora three 'selfies' his great-grandfather James Byron Clayton took in 1909
  • Sepia-tone images taken with boxy camera held by photographer look distorted like fun-house mirror reflections
  • Byron family has been in photography business since at least 1857

By Snejana Farberov

PUBLISHED: 14:59 EST, 8 February 2014 | UPDATED: 15:28 EST, 8 February 2014

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Selfies have become ubiquitous over the past few years, with everyone from pop stars to the president of the United States jumping on the bandwagon - but turns out the photo craze is at least a century old.

Writer and photograph Tom Byron has shared with the Internet community a handful of 'selfies' taken by his great-grandfather dating back to 1909.

Responding to a question about the best selfish on the social media site Quora late last month, Byron posted a trio of sepia-tone snapshots from the turn of the last century showing his ancestor, Joseph Byron Clayton, posing alone and with a group of friends while holding a bulky camera in his hands.

World's greatest selfie: Photographer and writer Tom Byron shared this 'selfie' his great-grandfather, Joseph Byron Clayton, took back in 1909

World's greatest selfie: Photographer and writer Tom Byron shared this 'selfie' his great-grandfather, Joseph Byron Clayton, took back in 1909

Group photo: Byron Clayotn's century-old self-portraits depicting him and his impeccably dressed mustached friends, look slightly distorted, like reflections in a fun-house mirror

Group photo: Byron Clayotn's century-old self-portraits depicting him and his impeccably dressed mustached friends, look slightly distorted, like reflections in a fun-house mirror

Unlike today's compact smartphones and slender tablets, taking a selfie a hundred years ago was a complicated task that required the photographer to hold a large, boxy apparatus in front of him.

The resulting images appeared disordered and out of proportion, similar to a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

In the prints aged by time, Mr Byron Clayton, a bespectacled, moustachioed gentleman, is depicted smiling for the camera in his hand alongside his friends all dressed in impeccable suits and bowler hats, with a fedora or two thrown in the mix.  

Mr Byron, a retiree from Marietta, Georgia, explained on Quora that he comes from a long line of shutterbugs beginning with his great-great-grandfather, James Clayton, who opened his first photo studio in London in mid-1800s.

The history of the Byron family as it is laid out on Ancestry.com is a fascinating one. Born in 1802 in Nottingham, England, James Clayton started out as a small businessman running a successful basket making company with his wife.

No iPhone? No problem: Taking a selfie a hundred years ago, with no smartphone or tablet in sight, was a complicated task that required the photographer to hold a boxy apparatus in front of him

No iPhone? No problem: Taking a selfie a hundred years ago, with no smartphone or tablet in sight, was a complicated task that required the photographer to hold a boxy apparatus in front of him

Around 1857, he decided to open his first photography studio, possibly inspired by his younger brother, Walter, who got into the picture-taking business a year before.

When his son, Joseph Byron Clayton was in his teens in the early 1860s, he joined his father as an studio assistant.

But a few years later Joseph took a job with a London photographer by the name of Sanderson and later bought him out.

In the late 1860s, the budding entrepreneur was convicted of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to 12 months of hard labor.

Shutterbugs: Tom Byron comes from a long line of photographers, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, James Byron, who opened a studio in 1857 in England; these are some of the business cards used by his ancestors over the years

Shutterbugs: Tom Byron comes from a long line of photographers, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, James Byron, who opened a studio in 1857 in England; these are some of the business cards used by his ancestors over the years

Once freed, Byron Clayton resumed his career in photography and married a coal miner's daughter named Julia Lewin, who bore him six children.

By mid 1880s, Byron Clayton’s company had fallen on hard times. Facing a possible bankruptcy, the businessman and his wife and oldest daughter and immigrated to New York in hopes of a fresh start.  

For a year Byron Clayton practiced as a freelance press photographer for the Illustrated American, among other publications, before breaking into stage photography.

His son Percy followed in his footsteps, but eventually moved to Edmonton, Canada, where he established a photographic business with his brother-in-law.

Tom Byron
Tom Byron

Family trait: Tom Byron seemingly inherited from his great-grandfather not only a passion for photography, but also a penchant for facial hair

Life well lived: Byron, pictured here with his wife of 27 years, earned multiple college degrees and went on to a successful career in photography before retiring in 2010

Life well lived: Byron, pictured here with his wife of 27 years, earned multiple college degrees and went on to a successful career in photography before retiring in 2010

The family business faltered during World War I, forcing Percy to move back to New York, where his joined forces with his father establishing a studio specializing in ship photography. 

Joseph Byron Clayton died in 1923, after which Percy Byron took over the Byron Company and continued to run it successfully until the middle of World War II, when business experienced a downturn and the company closed for good in October 1942.

Tom Byron, who earned several college degrees in economics and electrics, followed in his ancestors’ footsteps, working as a photographer until 2010, when he retired.
 

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