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Ghost cards

Thanks to Folk Photography, at long last, we’ve got mail

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Mark Dery

The images in Luc Sante’s new book, Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930 (Verse Chorus Press, $25), are transmissions from the postmortem Internet.

Why “real photo”? Because, unlike the commercial postcards of the day, mass-produced using photolithography, real-card images were true photos, developed in darkrooms and printed on cardstock whose flipside was pre-printed with the standard postcard formatting (“Place Stamp Here,” “Correspondence Here,” etc.)

Why the Internet? Because these sepia-toned images were the early 20th century’s answer to the uploaded cell-phone photo—“the people’s photography,” as Bogdan and Weseloh call it in their history of the genre, Real Photo Postcard Guide, or, better yet, folk photography, the more ethnographic, less-Marxist-reading-group term Sante prefers. A sepia-toned precursor of the do-it-yourself, many-to-many media of our Web Age, real-photo cards were often one of a kind, created by amateurs who mailed their film to commercial labs such as Eastman Kodak for processing and printing. Professionals also turned out photo postcards in their darkrooms, printing them in small batches, rarely more than a hundred, for the local market. In their heyday, as many as a billion of these cards were mailed every year—the e-mail of their age.

In one of those harmonic convergences of popular desire, profit motive, and governmental intervention that punctuate media history, the emergence of the real-photo postcard as the cell-phone snapshot of small-town America was the result of Kodak’s rollout, in 1903, of its cheap, easy-to-use No. 3A Folding Pocket model; the U.S. Postal Service’s introduction, in 1905, of the penny rate for postcards; and the growing penetration of Rural Free Delivery into heartland America.

To Sante, these postcards constitute a “ghost telegraph,” as he told a radio interviewer. In Folk Photography, he writes, “The real-photo card was typically a product of the small town, particularly the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line.” Like the blues, field hollers, chain-gang songs and other folkways of Old Weird America, real-photo postcards served as a social network, a kind of Basement Tapes of the backwoods unconscious, reporting local news, memorializing personal tragedies, scrapbooking sentimental moments.

In that sense, Sante argued, in a recent interview, the term “folk photography” is adequately earned. The uses rural Americans made of the real-photo card amount to “a tradition—self-taught, rural ideas being transmitted invisibly by some kind of ghost telegraph,” he said. “There’s a connection to the popular documentary impulse as it existed in the folk music of that period. You put these pictures next to half the stuff on [Harry Smith’s] Anthology Of American Folk Music, for example, [and they’re] documenting the same kind of things—train wrecks as well as courtships.”

The real-photo eye was drawn to everyday drama: Folk Photography includes fires, floods, immersion baptisms; a crowd of stone-faced men in derbies and boaters and Stetsons, convened around the spot where Belle Gunness (“probably the most prolific female serial murderer in American history”) buried some of her victims; an overturned streetcar surrounded by gawkers in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1919—the aftermath of a riot sparked by “consumer outrage over a fare increase from six to seven cents.”

It was attracted, too, to the droll: One of the postcards in Sante’s collection depicts a 62-foot-tall elk with 10-inch lightbulbs for eyes, erected in downtown Butte, Montana, in 1916 to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. Another portrays a sideshow barker ballyhooing a fat-lady act in the 1920s, part of a theme park in Benton Harbor, Michigan, run by the House of David, a religious commune whose adherents also operated an exhibition baseball team (“members were prohibited from cutting their hair or beards, which added visual pizzazz”). But real-photo cards also captured throwaway personal moments: two nattily bowtied little boys, a girl, and a pup straight from the Little Rascals casting call, seated on a lawn, framed by the shoes of the guy taking their portrait from a prostrate position. Or moments fixed in agony: an iron-faced woman, her jaw set in resignation, her baby—dead, by all appearances—limp on her lap. (Postmortem portraits were part of the American way of death well into the 20th century.)

Some of the cards in Folk Photography freeze-frame tableaux whose backstories have been misplaced, enigmatic scenes in search of a plot, like the—abandoned? ransacked?—office, its walls stripped bare, detritus heaped on the floor. Or the skin-pricklingly creepy photo of two pathetic grotesques, tarred and feathered and captured for posterity by the camera’s implacable gaze. In the background, a blurry figure hides his face with his hands.

Sante attributes the emotional spell cast by such images to ruptures in the fabric of the photographic narrative: “the stranger in the rear who never intended to be in the picture, the dangling hand of the mother holding her dead baby”—what Roland Barthes, in his incomparable Camera Lucida, calls the punctum, which Sante defines as “that aspect of a photograph that seizes—literally ‘pierces’—the viewer.” Typically, says Sante, it’s “an uncalculated detail, somewhere in a corner,” although “it can also be something affecting the image as a whole”: the blurriness of a photo of a river baptism, “as if the photographer could not keep steady in the storm of emotion”; the ironic lines jotted by a minister on a 1909 postcard of his El Campo, Texas, church, utterly demolished by an Act of God: “With many bland smiles I have to inform you—I am ruined. With unlimited pleasure and unbounded satisfaction I herewith present you with a true picture of my [church] in its present recumbent condition.”

In the book’s introduction, Sante wonders how self-taught photographers in rural hamlets, isolated from cosmopolitan culture and the aesthetic debates of the moment and influenced mainly by other photo postcards and chromos and maybe Civil War photography, created images of such laconic power. He decides that it’s naive photographers’ very obliviousness “to whatever central committee is currently dictating aesthetics” that frees them “from the sort of second-guessing that cripples artists.” The result is a spare, unsentimental aesthetic, as quintessentially American as the time-keeping thump of John Lee Hooker’s heel. “The pictures are most often blunt and head-on,” writes Sante, “and in fact are best when they are blunt and head-on.”

Of course, there’s a cultural politics afoot here. Sante, the son Joseph Mitchell and Ricky Jay never had, is best-known for mapping the secret history of America in books like Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and Evidence: NYPD Crime Scene Photographs 1914-1918, books written in the key of 19th-century hardboiled or CBGB’s noir or some combination of the two. Models of wiseguy poetry, they strike the perfect balance between the cagey one-liner and the oracular pronouncement—between Sam Spade and French philosophy. Half the writers in New York wish they could write like Sante does, and will die trying.

Read in that context, Folk Photography is a corner-of-the-mouth critique of all that’s phoney in contemporary art. That the “aesthetic arbiters of the time” (code word: Stieglitz) dismissed the real-photo postcard as inept amateurism, beneath notice, only reaffirms Sante’s belief in the importance of the genre, which he positions as the missing link between the “foursquare plain style” of the Civil War photographers and the rawboned aesthetic of Walker Evans. Locating the real-photo postcard in the “tradition of non-academic art in America, from the itinerant portrait painters of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the graffiti muralists of more recent times,” Sante celebrates folk photography’s “distinctly American” aesthetic, with its “emphasis on inclusion and directness,” an aesthetic whose attractions sometimes amount to little more than “a kind of absence—an apparent refusal or inability to do anything more than state facts, which we in turn perceive as beautiful because they are so distant or so bare.” There are echoes, here, of Whitman’s bear-hug embrace of the common man at his best, and of Chandler’s eye for the poetry of the mundane. In the world before the deluge of images that now inundates our mental lives, the real-postcard photographers preserved “electrifyingly real glimpses of scenes that are halfway familiar and halfway impossibly remote, all the more vivid because they weren’t meant for us.”

And yet they were. Because as Sante also notes, again channeling Barthes (the Barthes of “Death of the Author,” who maintained that meaning is in the eye of the beholder), the significance these tattered artifacts had for their senders and recipients is lost in time. “These pictures had an original life, when they were new, and perhaps a second one, when they were glanced at from time to time by aging parties to that first life,” Sante writes. “Now they are enjoying another life, in which they are new again, added to the pool of images of this moment.”

Every photograph is a “flat death,” says Barthes, an uncanny thing that embalms the moment, arresting life in mid-breath. Yet, paradoxically, photography also makes the dead live again, their hard stares meeting ours long after they’ve gone to dust. Which is why “postmortem.” A century or so ago, the unsmiling apparitions in these photos mailed their dead letters. At last, they’ve arrived in the hands of their true addressees: us.

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