Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards

One area of photography collecting that I have thankfully avoided is the world of photo postcards. Even with their hand tinted colors or exotic locals, it is always the endless possibility to find more at every turn through a dusty flea market that seems to me to be a bottomless pit of spending (much unlike photo books right?).

A few times I have been swayed. Once I found in a large box, several postcards on the subject of mining towns that had little cloth bags of ore attached to the card’s corner by a small length of string. At a quarter a piece, those were too good to pass up but admittedly, it was the tiny bag of ore and its contents that held my interest much more than the photo on the card.

Many books published in past years have featured collections of photographic postcards like Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards books or the older Prairie Fires and Paper Moons by Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown which looked at America through postcards made at the turn of the twentieth century. One recent addition to this genre is Steidl’s The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards.

The Stamp of Fantasy concentrates on examples of visual manipulations and inventive techniques that manufacturers and amateur photographers employed to create the ‘fantastic’ and surreal imagery that illustrated postcards throughout Europe in the early part of the century. Double exposure, montage, distorting optics, constructed studio sets and manipulation with pen, ink and paint all contributed surprise to this new mass-distributed medium.

Mostly meant for pure ocular pleasure, many of the examples reveal themselves (or the maker) to be somewhat disturbing in nature. In one 1905 example from an unknown amateur photographer in Germany, a man stands with his hands outstretched holding in his palms two plates, on each plate are copies of his disembodied head; all of which grin for the camera. The pages following have equally, if not more disturbing cards. One featuring a man whom, with bloodied knife in hand, holds up a decapitated head of another.

(Sorry for the interruption but all of this decapitation reminds me of two things that I need to mention; first, of hearing about a doctor named Beaurieux performing an experiment by shouting the name of a guillotined victim a few seconds after the head came to rest in the basket. He reported, “I then saw the eyelids slowly lift up…and the pupils focused themselves.” And secondly, anyone who hasn’t seen one of my favorite films of all time, Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep, will enjoy the results of the aforementioned experiment all the more when they see this film. I haven’t ruined anything for you by the way. Back to the book.)

Surprisingly out of the 345 illustrations I am drawn the most to a small series of postcards from 1903 from the Delarcade Editeur in Paris that straight forwardly depict items against a nondescript white backdrop. A pare, a broken woven basket, a man’s shaving razor and one that amounts to the most beautiful description of a man’s jacket I have ever seen. These were published under the series ‘Symboles’ and it is unclear to me as to what the deeper intent was in producing and labeling these cards under the heading of fantasy.

Other examples by Hannah Hoch, Man Ray, Paul Citroen and Marcel Duchamp show how these new forms of communication were adopted by the avant-garde artists of the time. Brassai, speaking about the appeal of fantasy postcards on the Surrealists said, “The poetry of postcards attracted them as much as the surprising arcades of Paris.” Like most people who collect passionately, some were so bitten by the postcard collecting bug that odd values were attributed to them. The poet Paul Eluard once confessed to promising Georges Sadoul a painting by Salvador Dali in exchange for 200 of his finest postcards.

Clement Cheroux ends The Stamp of Fantasy with a wonderful essay that traces the rise in popularity of photographic postcards and how that, along with roll films, assisted in altering the trajectory of the medium away from the professional studio photographers and into the hands of amateurs.

The book was published to accompany a traveling exhibition that opened at the Fotomuseum Winterthur last October. It breaks the subject down into three major categories: Publisher’s Postcards, Studio Postcards and Amateur Postcards. The book’s design is a little cold for my tastes but the production values and quality of the content make up for that.

One other book that takes on fantasy postcards as a subject but in a limited scale is Robert Lebeck’s Angeberpostkarten published in 1979 by Harenberg Kommunikation. This small paperback presents 80 of the finer examples from the collection of Robert Lebeck. Lebeck may be a familiar name for many as he was once a photojournalist who worked for Stern magazine for over thirty years. He also co-wrote the book Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism (Steidl) which I wrote about in a very early posting here at 5B4 and will be the subject of a three volume set called Tokyo/ Moscow/ Leopoldville this year from Steidl.

I bought Angeberpostkarten over 15 years ago and it is an enjoyable collection of what may be the more typical examples on the subject of fantasy postcards. Many plates are given to the ubiquitous images of super-sized farm animals grazing among Lilliputian humans and fisherman fighting to reel in trout that are as big as Jonah’s whale. The better examples are of cityscapes where the attitude of excitement towards new technologies pollutes the skyline with flying machines and buildings. They provide the visual surprise of impossible utopias that promise daily adventure even if it is a quick trip out for a loaf of bread.

This book was a part of the Die Bibliophilen Taschenbucher series and is number 115. It is has a nice feel to it with its decent paper stock and reproduction glued to the front cover. The reproductions are good.

Even after seeing how much variation there is to enjoy in postcard collecting, I’m sticking with books on the subject. In these two (and I am sure many others) we can see the finer examples of visual playmaking sent to bring cheer through photography and short passages of personal text. Little did we know that later these seemingly innocuous forms of communication would provide, in the words of Salvador Dali, “an experimental base for the study of modern and popular unconscious thought.”

Buy online at Steidlville

Book Available Here (Angeberpostkarten)