New York in Postcards
Postcards are cheap, ephemeral and, more often than not, throwaway. Yet they can also exert a powerful fascination for photographers and collectors alike, functioning at times as a valuable resource, or even as a model for practice. Before he entertained the idea of working as a photographer, the young Walker Evans was collecting others’ photographs, in the form of postcards. On his death, amongst the negatives, prints and papers he left a collection of some 9000 – dispersed in shoeboxes, drawers and suitcases, yet methodically catalogued by subject. Automobiles, Beach Scenes, Bridges, Factories, Hotels, Interiors, Railroad Stations, Street Scenes, for starters. As might be expected, he was a discriminating collector, eschewing colour photography and favouring unadorned, often frontal and prosaic views. ‘Folk documents’, as he called them, which ‘inadvertently captured the very essence of American daily life.’
And around the time of Evans’ death, Stephen Shore was clandestinely adding his own specially printed pictures to postcard racks during one of his epic Westbound road trips. Like Evans, he sought the uninflected and the everyday; and he too was a collector – his Road Trip Journal painstakingly notes the examples and locations of cards bought throughout his journey. More recently, Martin Parr’s rampant collecting gene is someway responsible for an archive of over 20,000 cards, including the revered, saturated excesses of John Hinde’s colourful Butlin’s scenes.
It is tempting to wonder what the three photographers might make (or have made) of the magisterial New York in Postcards, an inclusive survey of the collection amassed by Andreas Adam, an architect who initially sought out cards of individual skyscrapers, before developing an interest in all aspects of the city’s life between 1880 and 1980. Like Evans’, Adam’s archive is here arranged by subject: so there are chapters devoted to The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Hotels and Restaurants and Wall Street, for example. Iconic buildings have their own sections too: the Flatiron, Chrysler, Empire State and United Nations buildings are amongst those singled out; ditto St Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue’s Public Library and Trinity Church. Ferries, Skylines, Traffic, Ghettos and Palaces number amongst the further categories.
From amidst this great wealth of information, various histories emerge. Most obviously, aspects of the architectural development of New York can be plotted. As early as 1856 one commentator noted that ‘the landmarks, the objects which marked the city… as a city, are gone'; and Adam’s archive is in part a record of successive losses: ‘The “Waldorf” is particularly fine’ wrote one correspondent on a card from the hotel that was to be demolished to clear space for the Empire State Building. Penn Station is here before its demolition, an act described by the New York Times as a ‘monumental act of vandalism.’ Present too is the record-breaking Singer Building; record-breaking, though, for 12 fleeting months before completion of the taller Metropolitan Life Insurance Building.
But the postcards invite reflection on more than just their pictured subjects, and a good part of the richness of Adam’s collection derives from the cards’ thorough immersion in the fabric of American social life. For a start, they are of course predicated on the possibility of a population, or class thereof, mobilised in the pursuit of leisure. And the views of New York’s palaces and ghettoes, for example, and of the skyscapers of marketplace Manhattan, can be read as indices of (uneven) economic development. Histories of immigration, transport, the postal service, class, and tourism jostle throughout the collection.
Walker Evans would complain that colour postcards were often nothing more than ‘gaudy boasts that such and such a person visited such and such a place, and for some reason had a fine time.’ For once, the old grouch was wrong.
New York in Postcards, 1880-1980
Essays by Andreas Adam, Paul Goldberger & Kent Lydecker
publ Scheidegger & Spiess, £45.