Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2011
Jeff Rosenheim Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard Exh. cat. London: Steidl, 2009. 408 pp.; 400 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9783865218292)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 3, 2009–May 25, 2009
Luc Sante Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905–1930 Portland, OR: Yeti, 2009. 160 pp.; 127 ills. Paper $24.95 (9781891241550)
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Since the early 1980s, there has been a small but steady stream of publications on the cultural, historical, and artistic importance of postcards. Some of the most academically rigorous discussions on postcards have dealt with themes of colonialism, tourism, and representations of cultural and racial otherness. Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Christraud Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb’s edited volume Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 1998) stand out as two notable examples. Other publications by collectors and historians in the 1980s and 1990s honed in on specific types of subject matter or the various techniques used to make postcards. Real-photo postcards, a genre I will describe more fully below, were the subject of several books during this period, including Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown’s Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard, 1900–1920 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981) and David Chien’s About 85 Years Ago: Photo Postcards From America (circa 1907 to 1920) (Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1997). Collectively these texts made important contributions to the field of postcard studies by being among the first to closely study the medium, although their brevity ultimately limited the significance of those contributions.

It appears that things are changing, as the last decade has seen a number of more sustained and in-depth analyses of postcards. Rosamond Vaule’s, As We Were: American Photographic Postcards, 1905–1930 (Boston: David R. Godine, 2004); Elizabeth Edwards’s contribution to Tom Phillips’s We are the People: Postcards from the Collection of Tom Phillips (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004); and very recently, David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson’s edited volume, Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2010), all stand out as excellent examples of new developments in postcard studies. This review focuses on two particularly innovative books published in 2009: Luc Sante’s Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905–1930 and Jeff Rosenheim’s Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard. The latter, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name curated by the author, draws on the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contains more than 9,000 picture postcards collected by Evans for a period of over sixty years. Sante’s Folk Photography includes over one hundred reproductions of real-photo postcards from Sante’s personal collection; although there are only twenty-three pages of text, Sante’s exceptional writing and original visual analyses ultimately make up for this apparent shortcoming.

In his essay Sante explains that unlike photomechanically reproduced, mass-marketed postcards, real-photo postcards could be printed from any negative in a darkroom onto postcard-sized light-sensitive paper. Made by professionals, semi-professionals, and amateurs, these objects depicted a wide range of subjects and circulated in both the private and public spheres. Concerning their subject matter, Sante points out that real-photo postcards represented, “the whole panorama of human activity: eating, sleeping, labor, worship, animal husbandry, amateur theatrics, barn-raising, spirit-rapping, dissolution, riot, disaster and death” (10). They were an international phenomenon, though Folk Photography focuses almost exclusively on U.S. manifestations of the genre. Sante describes the central role that real-photo postcards played in shaping a sense of place and community in the developing western and rural areas of the United States. He also stresses their importance as a form of communication within these contexts. Real-photo postcards, he argues, are the product of “the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line” (9).

The subjects of Sante’s study are the product of shared traditions within a given cultural context, and thus tend to look strikingly similar. Add to this the anonymity of most real-photo postcard photographers, and it is tempting to lump them into one undifferentiated category. This, it seems, is what Folk Photography does, as the differences between the various makers of real-photo postcards become muddled in the book. The motivations of amateurs who made their own postcards for largely private consumption, for example, are vastly different from those of entrepreneurs who made real-photo postcards because they hoped to make a profit from them. Overall, Folk Photography places a greater stress on the latter type of producer, but never discusses that choice and its omissions.

One of the many strengths of Sante’s book is his careful explanation of what makes real-photo postcards an example of folk photography, which he describes as a practical, authentic, and unselfconscious form of the photographic medium. Noting that most (if not all) of the photographers who made such images were self-taught or, at most, locally apprenticed, he asserts that they were “out to do a job, turn a dollar, please the market, record things faithfully,” and that their photographs were a “combination of luck and formula” (12, 31). Sante also observes that real-photo postcards display distinctly U.S. patterns of composition. They are often simple, frontal, and symmetrical—visual qualities that he links to vernacular American painting, frontier architecture, alphabet samplers, and chromolithographs. Small town photographers who made real-photo postcards were mostly ignorant of the history of art photography and thereby “free of the second guessing that cripples artists” (12). Sante colorfully describes their process in this way: “they made a photograph the same way somebody else would make a table top or a loaf of bread” (37).

By employing his own collection, Sante follows a path blazed by the small but growing number of books in the field of postcard studies that are based on or draw heavily from private collections. Tom Phillips’s book, The Postcard Century: 2000 Cards and Their Messages (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), reproduces thousands of twentieth-century postcards from his collection. Other notable and recent examples include Todd E. Alden’s Real Photo Postcards: Unbelievable Images from the Collection of Harvey Tulcensky (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) and Ute Eskildsen’s 2007 The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards (London: Steidl), which draws heavily from the collections of Peter Weiss and Gérard Lévy. Sante rightly observes that there is potential for market manipulation when authors write about or exhibit their own collections of vernacular photography. In contrast with “upmarket and art photography,” where “collectors and critics are rarely the same people so dollar and aesthetic value can be kept chastely separate,” most scholars of real-photo postcards (and of vernacular photography in general) are also collectors (21). One could cite any number of exhibitions and books to demonstrate this trend, from Geoffrey Batchen’s Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004) to Barbara Levine’s Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).

What is commendable about Folk Photography is the degree to which Sante reflects on his own role as author and collector of this particular history. Also laudable is the way he steers the discussion of his personal criteria for selection into a broader analysis of how real-photo postcards are valued in the collector’s market at large. What makes one real-photo postcard more valuable than any other? In addressing this question, Sante considers subject matter as well as rarity and condition. This leads him to discern an important distinction between the interests of academics and those of collectors; the latter treat real-photo postcards “like fetish items” rather than as “testaments that owe a portion of their eloquence to their use” (21). A real-photo postcard is most desirable in today’s market, he explains, if it depicts a scene of small town America that is self-contained and roughly symmetrical, includes signage, objects, and people (more than one but fewer than ten), and has a clearly labeled geographical location. These criteria, he argues, “exclud[e] cards on both margins: the eccentric and the ordinary,” shaping, and one might say limiting, an understanding of the genre (22).

Folk Photography further accounts for the value of the genre by arguing that audiences are able to appreciate real-photo postcards because their sights have been primed by art photographers such as Evans who were directly or indirectly influenced by these vernacular images. Today, in other words, viewers see real-photo postcards through artistic interpretations of folk photographs. This “counter-genealogy,” as Sante calls it, leads to their contemporary desirability on the collector’s market and their legitimatization and canonization in fine-art contexts.

This is one of the ways in which Sante shows how the meanings of real-photo postcards shift over time, shifting according to changing contexts of viewing and interpretation. Practitioners of photography, Sante explains, “can only frame, which is a relative and conditional operation” (36). Viewers are freer and more flexible than photographers to reinvent continually the meaning and significance of photographs. For scholars of vernacular photography, Sante’s viewer-centered approach is a compelling means of dealing with images that have been torn from their original makers and uses, which describes so many objects in the field of vernacular photographic studies.

While the shifting uses and lived histories of postcards are often undervalued and overlooked, this is not the case in Rosenheim’s Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard. Exhaustive in scope and beautifully designed, the catalogue includes hundreds of high-quality, color reproductions of postcards from Evans’s personal collection. Most of the postcards are chromolithographs dating from the 1900s to the 1920s. Postcard aficionados will appreciate the great thought and care put into the reproductions, which represent the complex printing processes of early postcard history and were an important factor in Evans’s selection process. Another of the book’s excellent design features is its inclusion of the verso of certain postcards, revealing the written communications found there and giving a sense of the postcard as a material object. This aspect of the postcard was important to Evans. When publishing his own writings on the genre, he insisted that a border be left around reproductions of postcards to convey a sense of their physical properties.

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard sheds further light on the artist’s interest in the postcard genre by reproducing a vast body of archival material. This includes his three published essays on the postcard and a transcript of “Lyric Documentary,” a previously unpublished lecture delivered by Evans at Yale in 1964 on the subject of postcards and the documentary tradition. The book also includes reproductions of an extremely rare set of real-photo postcards made by Evans in 1935–36. Rosenheim argues that this project was an appropriation or reclamation of work by Evans for the Resettlement Administration in 1935–37. According to Rosenheim, Evans made about two dozen prints on standard 3 ½ X 5 ½ inch photographic paper with printed postcards on the verso. Editing his larger negatives to fit the smaller postcard format allowed Evans to isolate details and clarify his compositions so as to create a greater visual impact. Evans negotiated with the Museum of Modern Art, developing a plan to put photomechanical reproductions of his real-photo postcards on sale in the museum bookstore. Although the project never came to fruition, the failed postcard project eventually led to Evans’s landmark exhibition, American Photographs, in 1938.

Rosenheim’s book frames and describes Evans’s collection as a “living” archive for the artist, as something that helped him develop and articulate, over a period of decades, his own aesthetic philosophy and artistic goals. The book includes, for example, reproductions of the index cards on which Evans outlined his ideas for the “Lyric Documentary” lecture. These notes provide readers with rare insight into the photographer’s effort to think through the relationship between vernacular and other forms of visual culture. Above all else they demonstrate how postcards were a mode of research for Evans and an essential impetus for his lifelong process of questioning hierarchies of taste and valuation in the art world. Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard also remains true to the classification scheme in Evans’s collection, which helps the reader understand how he used the postcards as a mode of visual research for his own art photography.

Evans did not want his interest in these cards to be misunderstood as a kind of nostalgia or sentimentality; they were indispensible instruments in his efforts to develop a documentary style. The many photographers influenced by Evans’s photographic aesthetic thus absorbed the visual aesthetic of the picture postcard. Although the enshrinement of Evans’s work as fine art can sometimes obscure the vernacular roots that grounded him as a photographer, volumes like Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard remind readers that his original sources were seemingly everywhere, the objects of everyday life.

Is it possible to see Evans’s reproduction of scenes in his postcard collection as a kind of plagiarism? Rosenheim addresses this question while noting that Evans’s intention was not to copy the composition of his postcards but rather to “duplicate their spirit” (19). In so doing, Rosenheim highlights the distinction Evans made between the documentary genre—Evans cites photographs from “a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident” as representative examples—and his own “documentary style” art photographs (15). Evans, in fact, resisted the application of the term “documentary” to his own work, once explaining to Leslie Katz in an interview: “You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it can adopt that style” (“Interview with Walker Evans,” Art in America 59, no. 2 [March/April 1971]: 85).

Although they differ in subject matter and purpose, these two recent books by Sante and Rosenheim are compelling examples of how the history of vernacular photography might be written. Both publications are accessible to the general reader, which is important given the appeal of their subject to museum goers and postcard collectors. Furthermore, Sante’s articulation of how his own collecting interests influenced the content of Folk Photography may prove useful as a model for the increasing number of scholars who also collect photographs. For his part, Rosenheim challenges the expectations of readers by demonstrating that vernacular photography influences fine art photography. Providing a thorough discussion of the contexts for the postcards in their books, both authors are sure to stimulate the recent turn toward historical and cultural analyses of postcards.

Rachel Snow
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Fine Arts and Communications, University of South Carolina Upstate

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.