SCUA's latest exhibit, American Postcards, is now on view in the SDSU Library's 24/7 Area, thru September 2017.
Postcards of a century ago were a virtual catalog of the quotidian. Views of Main Street are seen from eye level, with its horse-drawn carriages, clanging trams and bouncing automobiles; street urchins loitering on the sidewalks, their eyes fixed permanently in the photographer's lens, and up above, a billboard advertising Coca-Cola, or the shop sign of a Chinese laundry.
During the postcard craze of the opening decade of the early 1900s, publishers pushed out tens of thousands of unique views at a profit. Staff photographers covered the major cities, while in smaller towns postcard retailers, often the local drugstore owner or stationer, contracted with a major publisher and provided the photo-negative from which to make the card. Real-photo postcards -- made from a photo-negative directly onto photosensitive paper, rather than through a lithographic process -- were especially important as a means of both salutation and communication for those in the isolated towns of the Midwest and Great Plains. Consider a real-photo card sent from Clearfield, Iowa in 1910, with an image of the town’s Methodist church going up in flames. The sender’s message reads, simply, “I wish you a happy New Year.”
The American photographer Walker Evans saw the postcard as a form of folk art, and in magazine essays and lectures made the case for the postcard’s place in the development of American visual culture. In a 1948 piece for Fortune magazine, Evans lamented the disappearance of those faithfully executed and unpretentious records of America’s byways and everyday sights, such a profound influence on his own art: “Quintessence of gimcrack, most recent postcards serve largely as gaudy boasts that such and such a person visited such and such a place, and for some reason had a fine time”. In the decade before World War II and after, when Evans’ essay appeared, the postcard was typified by the brightly colored, stylized views pioneered by ‘Art Colortone’ publisher Curt Teich and his imitators. These cards depicted a more intentionally optimistic vision of America, with its roadways, bridges, and public works. By the second half of the 20th century, these were usurped by the modern “chrome” postcard. Glossy color photos of roadside motels and diners, these cards are strictly advertisements, meant to boast the modern amenities of AC, color TV, and continental breakfasts.
No longer folk art perhaps, but when viewed together these images reflect a common experience; leaving Main Street to follow the interstate.
American Postcards includes vintage postcards drawn from the John and Jane Adams Postcard Collection, housed in the Library’s Special Collections and University Archives.