Thursday, April 16, 2009

From postcards to digital photography

An argument can be made that there is a direct aesthetic and philosophical connection between the early 20th century postcards collected and appreciated by photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975), which are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and digital photography today.

The postcards (above left  of Santa Fe station, and below, a birdseye view of Lincoln, NE) which Evans liked because they presented scenes of America in a direct and artless quality, are similar in manner and intention to pictures people take every second, at this point, when they travel throughout the world.

First, let's discuss the postcards. During his life, Evans collected about 9,000 postcards, which the photographer meticulously organized into different genres, such as factories, automobiles, street scenes or New York venues. Evans also wrote articles about his postcards in 1948 and 1964 for Fortune Magazine, where he worked as an editor, and even lectured at Yale about them in 1965, before he took a faculty position there.

The Metropolitan exhibition, called "Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard," offers about 700 of his postcards, organized around his themes and, on the entry wall, for the monumentality in their smallness and similarity. The exhibition also shows how in 1936 he transformed several of his New Deal photographs, by cropping them, into the postcard format. (Above right is one of those images.) The results ultimately led to his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938 and his fame. In 1994, the Met acquired the Evans archive, which contain the postcards, negatives, prints, diaries and other personal effects.

The show’s curator, Jeff Rosenheim, is suggesting by the exhibition that the straightforward nature and anonymous quality of the postcards influenced Evans as a photographer. Evans started collecting the postcards before he actually became a photographer. He valued the postcards’ non-sentimental and documentary nature, which eventually became the essence of Evans’ photographic works. He never aimed to copy the images, per se. There is only one example of Evans reproducing a postcard scene.

To manufacture the postcards in Evans’ collection, which date from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1920s, itinerant photographs would shoot main streets, railroad stations, interesting buildings, hotels, seashores, new technologies, mountains and tourist attractions throughout the United States. From the negatives, printing presses in Germany and in Detroit would print inexpensive postcards, which local towns or merchants would purchase so visiting members of the public would buy them and send the images with cute little notes to family and friends back home when they traveled.

Today, people do exactly the same thing with their digital photographs of the places they visit as people in the past did with postcards. We email a photo or create slide shows so friends and family can watch the pictures on their own computer, with text captions or even voice-overs describing the images. The obvious difference between the postcards and digital photography is that today we can literally put ourselves in the picture. We control the means of expression.

But the democratization of photography started with those postcards and Evan’s co-option of them, one could argue. Evans’ appreciated the postcard form, which informed his vision of photography, that of photographers of his generation and that of all successive photographers and artists. Once Evans made accessible the “beauty” in the ordinary, such an aesthetic became apparent to us all.

What is amazing to me when I scan Flickr or other photosharing sites on the web, is how many digital photographs of staggering beauty and power so-called “average” people are taking. Some are panoramas of nature, while others are snapshots unveiling the character of an urban side street covered with graffiti, or a hotel, or a beach. Even the unusual is captured: such as an airplane landing on water in the Hudson River.

The Metropolitan show of Evans’ postcards, which runs until May 25, provides a historical context for the evolution of photography. What photography will look like in the next hundred years is anybody’s guess. But given the proliferation of social networking, collaboration among people --as in 4 a.m. project and the public-curated show of photography at the Brooklyn Museum --may play a role in photoimagery, at least in the near term. I suspect in the future we will still like buildings, seascapes and escapes from it all. Who knows, though?

(Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the copyright for them. Left, Unknown Artist, Santa Fe Station and Yards, San Bernardino, Calif., ca. 1910 Postcard, Photomechanical reproduction, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walker Evans Archive, 1994 (1994.264.1.2); Right, Walker Evans (American, 1903– 1975) [Detail of Penny Picture Display, Savannah], 1936, Postcard format gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1991 (1991.1076))

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