America in 3 by 5

“Even the titles Evans gave his photographs sound like those found on postcards,” says Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs who organized the show. “They show simplicity, but absolute specificity of description.”

Rosenheim, who also curated the museum’s 2000 retrospective of Evans’s work, is quick to point out that this show is as much, if not more, about postcards as it is about Evans. “Postcards are a democratic form. They are about everywhere in particular. And there was no nostalgia about them. They show the new banks, the new factory, the new school. They were a clear expression of the present.” 

Evans was born in 1903 into the golden age of postcards. It began in 1901 when the post office allowed private companies to print picture postcards that could be mailed using a one-cent stamp. At first only the address could be written on the back of the card, but in 1907 the rules were changed and there was space for people to write their two-cents’ worth. What had been a fad became a mania, as the number of postcards sent in the United States began to approach nearly a billion a year. Since most of the cards were produced in Germany, World War I brought an end to the postcard craze.

“In the 1900’s, sending and saving picture postcards was a prevalent and often a deadly boring fad in the million middle class homes,” Evans wrote, greatly understating the cards’ popularity. “Yet the plethora of cards printed in that period now forms a solid bank from which to draw some of the most charming and, on occasion, the most horrid mementos ever bequeathed one generation by another.”3 Boring or not, Evans partook of the fad, and for the rest of his life collected the cards produced when he was a boy.

“The picture postcard is a folk document,” he declared in 1962, in an article praising “these honest and direct little pictures.”4 Their production however was hardly local and folkish, but rather part of a multinational industry. The basic images were shot in black and white by mostly anonymous local photographers. They were then sent to Germany where color was added, most likely by people who had never seen the locales whose color they sought to evoke. They liked to add florid sunsets and blue skies with great puffy clouds, but the subjects themselves tended to be treated in a way that is understated and restrained, very different from the later garish cards based on color photographs. 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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