When Gjon Mili invited celebrities to his studio in 1944 for a session in self-portraiture, the word “selfie” was 70 years from inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Duck face” was nothing more than the mug of a quacking animal, and Kim Kardashian’s father was a newborn baby, 36 years from fathering the future queen of selfies. But one look at the portraits they produced that day, and it’s not hard to imagine the subjects holding an iPhone 6 instead of a remote-controlled shutter release.
Photographic self-portraits date back to 1839, when Robert Cornelius mugged for his camera in the back of his family’s store in Philadelphia. So when Van Johnson and Geraldine Fitzgerald took their own photographs with Mili’s help, they were not pioneers, but participants in the evolution of an art form. And their poses are not so different from those of today’s selfies: Fitzgerald sports a barely-there smirk and Johnson an expression of “gee golly” innocence, actor S.Z. Sakall “cuddles” himself while singer Lauritz Melchior feigns surprise. Their photos make it clear that although the technology we use to capture it has advanced by leaps and bounds, human expression—duck face aside—has changed little over time.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.