One of the largest collections of real photo postcards at the Smithsonian can be found in the conveniently titled “post card collection” in the Eliot Elisofon Archives at the National Museum of African Art.
Of the nearly 300,000 images and negatives that make up the archive, almost 4,500 are photo post cards. Like most real photo post cards, most were made in the first decades of the twentieth century and document a wide range of African peoples, places, architecture, domestic life, and ceremonial activities. And like the American photo post cards that Luc Sante talks about in his recent click! story, the African cards were often made to be collected and made into visual compendiums of far away places, whether a temperance meeting in Illinois or African children looking at an album of photographs from France.
I like best the ones that actually made it through the mails. Sometimes with stamps still attached, postmarks and messages on both front and back, each communiqué seems to offer a great deal of information. Handwritten messages can offer additional information about what the sender saw, or smelled, or felt about the subject pictured on the front. On one post card, a note seemingly from one colonial government official to another reads: “The austere face of this native king will give you some idea of our state of mind - there is no longer laughter around here and health too seems to leave me. I may be obliged to send my fame . . . back before long.” Other times, as in this postcard image of a young, widowed Madagascar woman combined with a message of “three thousand kisses" sent to “My Madeleine” in Paris, the message even seems to describe something else.
Who is Madeleine we wonder, and why does the writer connect such love with the postcard’s young face of such sadness? Added to the cultural narrative of African colonial occupation, or gender specific cultural traditions (African and European), and the archival search tags we might bestow on an image object like this such as “portrait,” “Madagascar,” “female,” or “widow,” surely we might add a few more like “loneliness,” “home,” or “beauty.” This may be the stuff of creative writing courses; but these postcards, that by definition emphasize efforts to communicate thoughts rather than facts both visually and verbally, also seem to have some suggestions about creative ways to use Smithsonian archives as a whole. See Luc Sante talk more about photo postcards and about his book, Folk Photography, here.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.