By: John Dorfman
Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard
By Jeff L. Rosenheim
Museum of Art, $65
There might appear to be a great, even unbridgeable, distance between the perfectly composed, austerely graceful black-and-white photographs of Walker Evans and the colorized postcard views that were printed by the millions and mailed all over America in the early decades of the 20th century. But Evans, who began amassing postcards as a 12-year-old boy and kept at it his whole life, didn’t see it that way. When he looked at the chromolithographed pasteboards in his massive collection, what he saw was not kitsch but “lyric documentary,” the very vein he was trying to mine in his own work.
This volume is the companion to an exhibition conceived by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and rarely does a book do such justice to a show. Evans’ postcards are reproduced full-size, along with a smattering of his own photos, including some very rare prints he made on postcard-size photographic paper. There are facsimiles of three articles Evans wrote about picture postcards while he was an editor at Fortune magazine, plus a bonus of very great interest—a hitherto unavailable transcript of a lecture Evans gave at Yale in 1964 about the postcard phenomenon, illustrated with examples from his own collection of what he called “honest, direct little pictures.”
What was behind all this pondering of postcards? By “lyric documentary,” Evans meant a representation of the world that is both loyal to fact and unintentionally—or at least unselfconsciously—beautiful. In this category he placed not only postcards but also certain works by great artists such as Leonardo, Piranesi and Audubon. Not just any postcard could make the grade. Evans was choosy and especially favored the products of the Detroit Publishing Company, widely considered the Cadillac of postcard publishers. (One of the top executives of the firm was the great Western photographer William Henry Jackson, who contributed many images himself.)
In one of his Fortune articles, Evans wrote, “Among collectors of Americana, much is made of the nation’s folk art. The picture postcard is folk document. To taste them properly, one should renounce sentimentality and nostalgia—that blurred vision which actually destroys the authenticity of the past. … That said, one can, in effect, reenter these printed images, and situate oneself upon the pavements in downtown Cleveland, Omaha or Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.”
When he photographed, Evans was hoping to situate his viewers in a similar way. He aimed for the kind of purity the anonymous postcard photographers achieved unthinkingly—except he thought about it a lot. He told his Yale audience, “When the photographer presses for the heightened documentary, he more often than not really misses it.” That Evans didn’t miss it is an achievement that is as much psychological as artistic.
The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs
By Robert Flynn Johnson
University of California Press, $45
In The Face in the Lens Robert Flynn Johnson explores a different kind of unintentional beauty, one that owes its existence to the nature of the camera itself. “Through desire or by accident,” he writes, “an image of heartbreaking sensitivity and stunning visual power can occur… the photographic equivalent of a hole in one.” Johnson, curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in San Francisco, is a collector like Evans, but instead of postcards he seeks anonymous photographs—old snapshots found serendipitously at flea markets or the like. This book, which showcases prime examples from his collection, is the sequel to his acclaimed Anonymous (Thames & Hudson, 2004).
Anonymous photographs can be beautiful, like the one in this book showing two small children sharing a tête-à-tête in silhouette; shocking, like the crime scene shots or the Victorian dead-baby memorials; astonishingly skillful, like the action shot of three girls leaping in midair; or uncannily similar to the works of well-known art photographers, like the Surrealistic image of a masked woman welding in the nude.
In addition to being perhaps the cheapest and most wide-open collecting area in the art world, anonymous photos offer rich food for thought. Because the pictures have been severed from their original context, we can never be sure why they were taken or whether the effects are intentional or not. But we can be pretty sure that the people who made them didn’t think of themselves as artists and achieved their effects without, as Evans put it, “pressing” for them. That, of course, is an undeniable part of their charm.