Sunday, March 1, 2009

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard by Jeff L. Rosenheim

In 1903, the year Walker Evans was born, the US Postal service handled 700 million picture postcards. Evans would later recall his fondness for those "honest, direct, little pictures that once flooded the mail." By the age of twelve he was a collector and through his lifetime, an obsessive. "Yes, I was a postcard collector at an early age. Every time my family would take me around for what they thought was my education, to show me the country in a touring car, to go to Illinois, to Massachusetts, I would rush into Woolworth's and buy all the postcards." For Evans, the addition of hand-coloring added a great deal of aesthetic value.

The new book from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Steidl explores his personal collection in Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard.

Evans's tendency towards the "artless" quality of his own work is directly present in the generic and mostly frontal style found in picture postcards. Simple (deceptively so in the case of Evans), detached and recorded with economy, the authors of both are virtually anonymous.

A couple years before his landmark show at MoMA, Evans and Tom Mabry proceeded to work on a postcard project where Evans would chose 25 of his images to be printed by photomechanical means and 50,000 cards would be made available for sale at 5 cents each. If all sold, Evans would generate a royalty of $500.00. The project would eventually be shelved by the Spring on 1938. By that fall, Evans's American Photographs show and book were released.

During his years at Fortune magazine, Evans was eventually rewarded the autonomy necessary to basically do as he pleased. He pitched stories on picture postcards and two were featured in the magazine in May 1948 and January 1962. Architectural Forum ran a separate story of his on cards in July of 1962.

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard
reproduces hundreds of cards from his collection including the three magazine features mentioned above. Also the fine addition of an "illustrated transcript" of his now famous Lyric Documentary lecture at Yale in 1964 makes this a bit more interesting than the title may suggest.

The book is well printed, the design plain stated like the postcards themselves, but my criticism is with the typography. I am no typographer by any stretch but I find the handling here clunky and uninspired. The texts by Jeff L. Rosenheim are well worth reading, I just wish they were more attractive to make you want to do so.

Later in life Evans had friends around the country while on photo trips keeping an eye for postcards that might interest. He had a particular love for ones produced by the Detroit Publishing Company which were considered "Cadillac" of postcards. Lee Friedlander related the following from a recent interview: The Detroit Publishing Comapny had a formula. If a town had 2,000 people or so, it got a main street postcard; if it had 3,500, it got the main street and also a courthouse square. Walker liked the formula. He had everyone looking for this or that. He told me once in Old Lyme, "If you run across and 'Detroits,' get them for me." I found sixty or seventy cards for him. He loved them.