Sharp, cheap, instantly accessible, mass-produced color photography has changed the way Americans see themselves and the world — images of us are everywhere. With photography’s tools so ready at hand for so much of the population, there are few regions of our lives that cannot and have not been reproduced for posterity. There these pictures reside, arriving expectantly in our email accounts from faraway relatives, artfully arranged in leather-bound albums, cropped and retouched and mounted on bedroom walls, pinned with adolescent fervor to dorm room bulletin boards, piled in dusty shoeboxes in neglected closet corners. Whereas our countrymen could once go their entire lives only seeing their faces in the bathroom mirror or a pond’s rippled surface, now they have only to flip open their camera-phone or pull up their favorite social-networking site, or look at their wedding pictures on the mantel, or their driver’s license, or….
The world that Luc Sante (Low Life) has given us a glimpse into with Folk Photography is most assuredly not this modern-day hall of mirrors. In the early 20th century, affordable access to the world of photography began creeping into society, allowing ordinary people to have themselves reproduced in striking monotones, frozen in time. It also allowed them to snap pictures of their towns that they could send to friends and family, or hang on to, as keepsakes.
A few innovations in the century’s first decade helped drive the folk custom of mailing the geographically-focused postcards that Sante talks about, namely the spread of the pocket camera, and the postal service’s introduction of both a special postcard rate and Rural Free Delivery. With the ready availability of photographic services — Sante notes that most American towns at the turn of the century had a professional photographer, sometimes doubling as town druggist or stationer — and a cheap means of sending out into the world, the short-lived tradition of the photo postcard was born.
In his introduction, Sante writes of how the photo postcard’s creators were folk artists in the purest sense of the term, untaught and unrecognized:
The photo postcard is a vast, teeming, borderless body of work that might as well have a single, hydra-headed author, a sort of Homer of the small towns and the prairies. Self-taught and happily ignorant of the history of the medium, this author was free of the sort of second-guessing that cripples artists. He or she was out to do a job, to please a public, to turn a dollar, but also to record things faithfully, to include as many details of a scene as the frame could contain, to hold up a mirror to that bit of the world shared with the clientele, maybe to make the familiar strange, simply by noticing things.
As a cultural phenomenon, the photo postcard was, according to Sante, in its heyday from 1905 to the middle of the following decade, when the war put a crimp in things (Germany printed many of the cards and supplied much of the ink), but lasted in some form until about 1930. The cards primarily came from the middle of the country, Texas up to the Dakotas, and from a strip of country between the states of Washington and New York. The ones reproduced here are drawn from Sante’s own collection (harvested from sidewalk sales and antique-store dollar bins), and make a strong case for this format being considered its own unique form of folk art.
The images are surprising, brusque, and mesmeric, chilled with a sense of mortality that was common to even professional photography of the period (those stern expressions and dark clothes, the frames sometimes thin from hunger and work). Sante arranges them with a planned kind of randomness, not dividing them into clear-cut chapters, but letting the parade of sepia imagery flow from one to the next with an intuitive gleam.
On one page, a pair of railroad photos face each other, one illustrating the first train car to cut across the South Dakota badlands, the other a train crossing a long bridge over the White River at Hollister, Missouri. On another, two facing postcards show arrangements of local bands — unsmiling all.
Many of the book’s photo postcards recreate such putatively everyday scenery such as these, whether it’s an auto repair shop in Choteau, Oklahoma or a horse-drawn wagon traffic jam in Whiteboro, Texas. But others still highlight more dramatic locations, such as one sent in 1914 to Gallatin, Missouri that shows a band of “American insurrectos,” lounging on a wall in Juarez, where they had just finished fighting the American-backed federal army on the side of the revolutionary forces.
A 1908 card shows a yard in South Bend, Indiana, where a crowd of men are gathered, and a scrawled caption reads, “Where the bodies were found.” (Sante’s note reveals that this yard belonged to one Belle Gunness, maybe the most prolific female serial killer in American history, who buried some 40 victims at her farm.)
Fans will recognize in Sante’s choice of material some of the same fascination with still-born morbidity that pulsated through his classic album of early New York crime-scene photography, Evidence. This morbidity darkens the mood in those plentiful portraits (which, while being frequently the most beautiful of the bunch, also seem the most artfully composed) which help make Sante’s case for comparing these photographers’ work to the likes of Stieglitz. But while many of the postcards and their subjects are chiseled by the same kind of hard-knocks sternness which characterizes period photographic portraiture, they are also backlit by their location’s frequent remoteness.
These cards are not the work of urbanites, who likely knew that their cities would be memorialized in photography (not to mention books, songs, and films). They were the work of townspeople whose homes very possibly hadn’t been there ten years before, and for all they knew wouldn’t be there ten years in the future. This sense is highlighted quite dramatically by the book’s final selection, a jarring 1911 photo from Black River Falls in Wisconsin, showing a building nearly wiped away by floodwaters.
Send a postcard today, for the town may not still be here tomorrow. It’s that American sense of impermanence which, perversely, gives this garage-sale collection its own peculiar immortality.