Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People's Photography

by Matt Damsker

 

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By Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh. 2006, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY. ISBN No. 0-8156-0851-9; 257 pages; 350 plates; hardcover. Information: http://www.SyracuseUniversityPress.syr.edu .

Nothing defines the collecting impulse--in all its obsessive love for the rare and the arcane--more than the passion for collecting the countless, mostly amateurish photo postcards that flourished so widely across the United States during the first third of the 20th century. Photo postcards epitomize the medium's populist, democratizing spirit in a way that no other photographic trend or style seems to do, and while these slight, postal-conforming rectangles have an inherently comic cast to them--in all their unsophisticated commercial glory, as fliers for barber shops, bakeries, blacksmiths and general stores, or as mementos of marching bands and county fairs--they capture their slices of life with such charm and simplicity that it's impossible not to love, and quite possibly treasure, them.

Certainly, authors Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh treasure them. Bogdan is a professor at Syracuse University in New York, while Weseloh is the archivist at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, and both are among the leading photo postcard collectors of their day, with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject. Indeed, if this handsomely produced book isn't the definitive general guide to understanding, valuing, and collecting photo postcards, nothing is. The authors touch every conceivable base in educating the reader/collector, documenting not only the history of these artifacts but providing extensive criteria for identifying authentic specimens, technical quality, condition, and rarity. They also highlight every known category, to the extreme of including gay and transgender postcards along with the dominant themes of Main Street America.

As they note in their introductory essay, Americans went mad for photo postcards early in the last century: some one billion of them were mailed in 1913 alone, ten times the population of the U.S. at the time. In retrospect, this mania seems quintessentially American--a faddish embrace of a wondrous, mass-produced commodity, a snapshot of local and distant reality that carried with it something of the novelty that would attach, less than a half-century later, to the emergence of television. Suddenly, these photo postcards were the nation's multiform image of itself, infinitely varied yet comfortingly familiar, mustering personality, industry, spectacle, and oddity on the same three-by-five inch screen.
 

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.