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A prize-winning book of photo postcards

August 19, 2010 | 10:49 am

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Sometimes it takes a small press to make a truly interesting book. Yeti Books, with the help of Verse Chorus Press in Portland, Ore.,  is behind "Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930."  OK, it's a pretty dry title. What makes it interesting is that it's by Luc Sante.

Sante, a cultural critic with an eye for photography, made ephemera something of an art form with his book "Low Life," a chronicle of New York's Lower East Side from 1840-1920; this history of the underclass and outsiders drew on overlooked resources, including police gazettes and eyewitness accounts. Our reviewer called the book "a cacophonous poem of democracy and greed"; it landed Sante a gig as a historical advisor on Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."

Unofficial, often unsigned, real-photo postcards could be snapped by an amateur photographer with a quick eye and a decent tripod, sold and sent through the U.S. Mail for a penny starting in 1905. Over the next two decades, their popularity ebbed and flowed, but the form has been moribund since before World War II. Sante's "Folk Photography" is a singular act of turning "who cares?" into "oh, wow."

Thirty years ago, Sante began collecting photo postcards serendipitously -- they were being sold on the street, intriguing and cheap. The more he looked for them, the more curious he became. "The postcard photographers can give the impression that they are inventing their medium from scratch," he writes, comparing them to modern graffiti artists, "and indeed, for the makers and their contemporary viewers alike, this might as well have been the birth of photography.

Sante, who teaches at Bard College, often wrote about postcards on his blog; it has been mostly quiet as his attentions turned to the book. In his introductory essay, which won the International Center for Photography's Infinity Award for Writing this year, Sante writes:

You can derive enormous volumes of data from a single photo postcard, but the phenomenon of the photo postcard itself can only be grasped by looking at tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of images. It is a landscape with few landmarks, and no peaks from which a broad survey could be made. Themes drift into view gradually. Only on the basis of hundreds of images of parades-- most often taken from rooftops, and oriented from top left to lower right -- does a singular view of a parade detach itself from the mass.

Sante's collection has reached about 2,500; just over a hundred appear in the book. It's easy to forget that these weren't just snapshots: they were snapshots made into postcards, stashed away or stamped, written on and mailed.

What's included here: unique moments, the representatively dull, the clearly beautiful. There is the typical shot of a children's play, made startling by the boy in the audience who has turned around to face the camera. There are cards with plain photos of towns, one addressed to a friend asking how the same scene looks from his side of the river. There are photos taken outdoors, of livestock and recently-bagged game and also studio portraits, some of working class people that might be mistaken for Irving Penn's Small Trades series. There are news photos, of a building on fire or a town gathered around an auto accident (with help arriving on carts and horses), and not-quite-news photos -- river baptisms, a visiting carnival in the rain. Sante writes:

We can see how squarely and unhesitatingly these pictures accept their circumstances -- the flat facades, the muddy streets, the bad weather, the fleeting pleasures, the endless labor, the meager rewards, the menace of accidents, the presence of death.... All of them had some kind of knack for making the familiar seem new, for turning complicated narratives into terse aphorisms, for showcasing the achievements of their neighbors, for selecting instants that appear summary even when nothing much is happening....They made a photograph the way somebody else would make a table, or a crop, or a load of bread. They were like anybody else in town, but they were its designated eyes.

Right now, finding the book in stores may take the serendipity of coming across a photo postcard in a bin at a rummage sale, but "Folk Photography" is available through Yeti Publishing online for $24.95. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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Photo credits: Yeti publishing


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