America in 3 by 5

February 2009 | Walker Evans believed in picture postcards. The great photographer began collecting them as a boy, years before he ever snapped his first picture. Throughout his life he celebrated them, wrote about them, experimented with the format, and continued to collect them. “On their tinted surfaces,” he wrote in a 1948 Fortune magazine article, “were some of the truest visual records ever made of any period.”1 

The more than nine thousand cards he collected from childhood until his death in 1975 at the age of seventy-one—most of them produced in the first decades of the twentieth century—now reside with the rest of his archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, an exhibition based on the collection on view at the museum from February 3 to May 25, examines the connection between the art of a renowned photographer and the anonymous works that inspired his lifelong fascination. Some three hundred of the cards are on display, along with a small selection of related photographs by Evans.

If you have even a vague familiarity with Evans’s work, the connection seems obvious. Picture postcards, especially those from the early period of Evans’s collection, are quintessentially matter of fact. Nobody tried too hard to make them pretty. They show buildings that are, as Evans said, “extraordinarily unbeautiful,” streets clogged with traffic, and factories belching smoke.2 You do not doubt for a minute that this is what things looked like.

Take for example a postcard of a shoe factory in western Massachusetts (Fig. 7). The card shows a large, unlovely five-story building head on in its entirety. Posed in front of the factory are a hundred or more of its workers. You want to look closely enough to figure out who kept the books and who affixed the soles, but everyone is looking his or her best so it is hard to tell. Centered at the top of the building’s facade are the words “The Cross Shoe,” flanked by the phrases “Made Here” and “Sold Everywhere.” Like many of the cards Evans collected, it expresses pride in an ordinary, even ugly, place. And like some of Evans’s photographs, the image implies a whole social and economic order. Certainly, the big sign recalls those that dominate some of his most famous images.

If you look at many Evans photographs after looking at the postcards, they have this same matter of factness, but somehow intensified. The postcards seem artlessly honest while Evans’s images are clearly works of art and thus, inevitably, more manipulated, and more emotionally gripping. But if you trust what he shows, it is, at least in part, because he learned the language of postcards.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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