The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Please Mr. Postman
One of the thrills of seeing—when you stop to pay attention to it—is how complex and quickly the process of looking and making sense of what we see happens. According to researchers like Aude Oliva, who works in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we grasp the “gist of a scene” rapidly. We are wired to extract a lot of information from a surprisingly small amount of visual input in an instant. Which brings us to the subject of picture postcards. In thinking about photography’s role and impact on our lives, we wanted to find someone to write a piece for click! about the circumstances in which we use photographs to sum up our experiences quickly and to speak for us. Luckily for us, Luc Sante, a writer and critic known for his essays on photography and cultural phenomena, has recently published Folk Photography, in which he tracks the early 20th century production and popularity of real-photo postcards. As you read the piece Luc Sante wrote for click!, what becomes clear is that our desire to distribute images that communicate whatever strikes us as interesting and/or unusual, continues to this day, and that it has been continually transformed by whatever imaging technologies we have at hand. In the 1980s, entrepreneurs marketed glue-on labels to be adhered to the back of 4x6 drugstore-type color prints, turning snapshots into one-of-a-kind mail-able messages.
Today, with digital technology—and the help of our computers, cell-phone cameras, and smart phones—the production process and the products of the postcard era seem nostalgic and quaint. If you haven’t already, read another click! piece, by Philippe Kahn, the inventor of the cell-phone camera, that brings the story Sante tells into the present, and confirms how we continue to make and circulate images in order to share our sense of wonder as we move through the world and our lives.
(To hear the Marvelettes 1961 Motown hit, "Please Mr. Postman," about the anticipation of receiving postcards and letter, click here.)