I had planned to begin by writing “almost no one actually mails postcards any more,” but yesterday I got one in the mail, to my delight. It was a classic: “Aloha from Hawaii.”
It is rare to find a card actually mailed, but people still buy them for bulletin boards and the side walls of refrigerators. This summer I keep running across postcards in antique stores. They are creeping up in price, but they are still affordable and always surprising and I can't resist them.
A few months ago I visited the exhibition, Walker Evans: the Picture Postcard, at the Metropolitan Museum, which displays some of the 9000 cards that Evans’s estate donated to the museum. It is an apt reminder of the persistent power of the postcard culture.
Postcards survive today, if less often mailed, but sold in hotels, museums and bookstores. How many ads offer 500 post cards for a low price? The cards today exist more as a standard size and shape for printed images—often advertising, in those racks by restaurant restrooms-- than as means of direct communication. Many cards these days end up on bulletin boards or attached by magnets to refrigerators.
It was different when Walker Evans began collecting cards, as a boy, and long before he took his own first photograph. We forget how common postcards once were: in 1903, the year Evans was born, some 700 million cards were sold around the world. Postcards were the email of their time, used instead of telegrams--more expensive—or personal telephones—still comparatively rare—in the first part of the century. Often with a single sentence message scrawled across their backs, postcards could cross town by mail overnight.
Most of us have a few or more than a few vintage postcards stashed away. They are so cheap, even today, as to be almost anti collectibles, and yet they work as souvenirs. I’ve been fascinated with postcards for decades and like many people assembled a small and personal collection. I still buy old cards in antique stores and new ones at museums or when travelling. Most of us enjoy old linen era cards; they are like old Forties films that everyone loves. (The harder sensibility of the later Kodacolor era is different, less romantic.)
Evans focused on a comparatively narrow portion of the vast postcard world, which includes specialties. There are collectors of cutesy cartoon kitten cards, of light houses or railroad locomotives or factories. Postcard collectors invented the high sounding name “deltiology” for their hobby.
George Orwell was fascinated by a different side of the postcard world, his era’s version of corny, mildly risqué cards sold at the seashore. In 1941 he wrote an essay about the cards of fat ladies and clueless secretaries known mostly by the work of Donald McGill, asking” Who does not know the 'comics' of the cheap stationers' windows, the penny or two penny colored post cards with their endless succession of fat women in tight bathing-dresses and their crude drawing and unbearable colors, chiefly hedge-sparrow's-egg tint and Post Office red?” .
One of Evans and Orwell’s successors in postcard appreciation is Martin Parr whose two books of Boring Postcards are, of course, not boring at all, but part of a different sensibility.
My favorite categories of cards are highways and roads, skyscrapers at night and small towns under moonlight. I treasure a glowing red and blue night view of the Sterick building in Memphis, a similar view of the Guaranty Building in Detroit and heavily tinted view of the Chrysler Building, with a wholly imagined red and yellow searchlight shooting powerfully from its tip.
Most of Evans cards are from the Detroit Publishing Company. Major post card publishers like Detroit Publishing and the Curt Teich company, in Chicago sent photographers all over the world to create the basis for their postcards.
Among Evans cards, the images of small towns are particularly touching. They all look so much alike. The rows of cars along main street offer no hint of the state or even the region in which the town is located. Small towns looked a lot alike all over the country, north or south, east or west. The array of small town cards, some with blue skies, some with full moons, recalled to me the way home town is the only piece of information that military personnel serving around the world routinely give, along with rank.
(Even the universal Civil War monuments, and later the doughboy World War I monuments, were the same; many were ordered from catalogs and made of generic stone could stand for either a blue or gray uniform.)
In the Evans show is an image of a small town, Franklin, Pennsylvania. I have old postcards of my hometown Franklin, North Carolina.
Airplane and train cards often include messages inscribed on board. I have a card showing a 1930s Pan Am Clipper airliner. Its message was written en route from Miami to Havana. “I’m writing this a thousand feet in the air….” It begins.
A few years ago in Barcelona, I bought a handful of postcards of the Holy Family cathedral, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Gaudi’s head appeared in profile on a little medallion on each card so that he looked like General Robert E. Lee as he appears on Stone Mountain in Georgia. But there were many cards in the set and ever since, I’ve regretted that I didn’t collect the whole group.
Other serious postcard collectors include John Margolies, the photographer, who has spent decades documenting the vanishing architecture of the American roadside and main street has assembled a collection of thousands of them. Margolies says that the cards provide the “before” views to the “after” views of hotels and motels, gas stations and diners, that he shoots. He has continued the work of the New Deal era photographers by roaming the roads of America and taking photos.
The art collector Leonard Lauder like Evans began collecting the cards as a child—at age six. He donated several thousand Japanese postcards to the Boston museum of fine arts and about 14,000 more of American subjects to the New York Public library. Many are digitally available. (http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=164
The Library of Congress also has a rich lode of vintage post cards from Detroit Publishing on line. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/detroit/dethome.html>
You can still find plenty of cards on sale at book stores and museums, of course. Many of these seem to be portraits and images of famous works of art. Often I think they’re destined for cubicle bulletin boards not the mail they still function as souvenirs.
The Evans postcards recall another show of post cards, this one at the Dia Museum in Beacon, NY, which runs until September. It is called “You see I am here after all” and is made up of some 4000—make that 3852--vintage postcards of various views of Niagara falls. The curator of the show, Lynn Cooke writes, that “while the combination of a single subject, uniform format, and orderly layout, creates an almost overwhelming impression of standardization and repetition that initial impact is undercut once the surprising range of variations within any individual group of cards, however small in number, becomes evident.”
Photography for Evans was in part a form of collecting. He took pictures of many things that he also literally collected, such as hand painted signs and simple hand tools. Evans also prepared some of his own images for a never realized effort to issue his own postcards, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. He cropped larger views into images more appropriate for cards. The Met show explores the influence post cards had on Evans’s photography but it cannot explain the subtlety with which Evans imbued the documentary approach of his own photos with a lyric empathy that avoided sentiment on or condescension.
In an article he wrote in Fortune about the cards, in 1948, Evans was already decrying the decline in quality of the images. The great linen card era was coming to an end. He decried the “quintessence of gimcrack” in cards. He described the cards he liked as “lyric documentary.” an esthetic category he tried to establish, notably in a talk at Yale in 1964. The cards literalize the phrase: documentary black and white photography lyricized by the applied tints of blue skies green trees and brick red buildings. The tinting varies; some have noon skies with clouds; others night skies with yellow moons. You can see varying versions of the same basic photo.
The process of post card making—“lyric documentary” in Evans’s phrase —also seems a pretty good model for the way human memory in general works, overlaying the original sensory data with tints of recollection.