We will probably never know, and we will probably never care quite as much as Rosenheim does. Still, despite Evans’s celebration of the documentary value of postcards, in this case the artist’s version gives a truer, messier account of the way things were.
Most of the exhibition consists of postcards from Evans’s collection, which he categorized by such subjects as “courthouses,” “boats,” and Rosenheim’s favorite, “architecture-ordinary.” In 1936, however, he purchased some postcard stock, preprinted on the back with a place for the address and a stamp, and printed his own postcards, about a dozen of which are in the show (see Figs. 8, 11). These look nothing like the other cards on view. Indeed, most of Evans’s photographs look more like postcards than these do. The ones he printed on postcard stock are not local, specific, or informative. Rather, they are abstract, and a bit arty.
The artiness springs from the way in which they were made. Evans used a camera that produced eight-by-ten-inch negatives. To make his postcards, he simply contact printed part of his negative onto the smaller format paper. For example, a negative that showed a cluster of buildings, weighty and complete, yielded a postcard of gables and rooflines (see Figs. 8, 9). It takes a moment to realize that the abstract composition was hiding—at exactly the same size—in the larger image all along.
Evans kept his postcards in file boxes inside leather suitcases, with tabs that showed his slightly inconsistent filing system. Often, Rosenheim says, the same card turns up in several different categories. This makes sense because the same image can show many different things, and Evans used the postcards as tools to help himself see.
Evans was a connoisseur of the throwaway, and his other collections at the Metropolitan Museum include holdings of crushed tin cans, medicine labels, and driftwood. When he was teaching at Yale during the last decade of his life, Rosenheim said, he would walk on the beach with students and discuss why one piece of driftwood was worth looking at and another was not. “It was all about exercising the eye.”
The postcards, though, afford the deepest and most engaging exploration of how an artist saw his world. “My ultimate ambition for the show,” Rosenheim says, “would be that people would see the postcards and Evans’s responses to them, and then go out into the street with fresh eyes, aware of the beauties of the commonplace.”
1 Walker Evans, “Main Street Looking North from Courthouse Square,” Fortune, vol. 37 (May 1948), p. 102. 2 Evans, “When ‘Downtown’ Was a Beautiful Mess,” ibid., vol. 65 (January 1962), p. 101. 3 Evans, “Main Street Looking North from Courthouse Square,” p. 102. 4 Evans, “When ‘Downtown’ Was a Beautiful Mess,” p. 101. 5 Evans, “Main Street Looking North from Courthouse Square,” p. 102. 6 Evans, “When ‘Downtown’ Was a Beautiful Mess,” p. 101.
THOMAS HINE is the author of six books including Populuxe and The GreatFunk: Styles of the Shaggy, Sexy, Shameless 1970s, to be published in paperback by Farrar Straus Giroux in February.