Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard
Photographer Walker Evans is well known for his stark portraits of the American Great Depression, which reflect a part of our cultural memory. In a career that spanned over 60 years until his death in 1975, Evans was a prolific artist and, like many artists, a collector. Drawn to the mundane and ordinary, Evans collected driftwood, tin-can pull-tabs, and wood and metal signs. He also collected printed ephemera—paper items intended to be discarded after use. He was a particularly obsessive collector of picture postcards, amassing a collection of over 9,000 during his lifetime.
Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, by Jeff Rosenheim, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, documents Evans's lifelong fascination with the picture postcard. Born in 1903, Evans started collecting postcards at a young age when postcards happened to be at the height of their popularity. Most of his collection (all of which is in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) dates from the 1900s to the 1920s. This period was the heyday of the "real-photo" postcard, before modern printing processes were perfected.
Rosenheim writes that Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard examines "the relationship between Evans's own art and the everyday style and quotidian subjects of the cards he collected.1 As an artist Evans drew on his postcard collection as a source of inspiration, re-photographing scenes from cards in his collection when he traveled. Eventually Evans even published some of his own photographs as postcards. Also, working as a photo editor for Fortune, Evans used cards from his collection to illustrate postcard essays. David Prochaska, in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity, writes that no other artist "engaged and put to use postcards in as many different ways as Walker Evans."2
Collecting almost every type of postcard, Evans organized them under subject headings, some of his own creation and others used by the postcard industry. These category names —Automobiles, Railroad Stations, Madness, and Hotels/ Summer Hotels, to name a few— are also used by Rosenheim to organize the postcards within the book. Over 400 postcards from Evans's collection are included in this beautifully illustrated book.
What attracted Evans to such a humble everyday object? When he was young postcards were plentiful and inexpensive—an easy item for a child to collect. As Evans developed as an artist, Rosenheim writes what appealed to him "were the cards' vernacular subjects, the simple, unvarnished, "artless" quality of the pictures and the generic, uninflected, mostly frontal style that he would later borrow for his own work with the camera."3
Given his intense interest in picture postcards, were he alive today it would be interesting to see Evans's reaction to the smartphone app "Post-a-Gram." With "Post-a-Gram," a smartphone user can take a picture with his phone, crop the image, write a short message (less than 140 characters) and have it printed and sent by the U.S. Postal Service as an actual postcard to a recipient—all in less than five minutes! The picture postcard may be nowhere near as popular as it was when Evans was a child, but it is not dead yet. In fact, it may be undergoing a small revival.
You can view examples of Evans's work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. These include Window Display, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1935 (1985.48); Roadside Stand, Vicinity Birmingham, Alabama from 1936 (1975.36); and what is one of his most well-known images, Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (1973.120). Other images are Miners' Houses, Vicinity Birmingham, Alabama (1991.243) from 1935; Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein (1993.30), taken circa 1930; and New York City (1992.8) from 1928—1929.
Notes1. Jeff Rosenheim, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard (Göttingen: Steidl, 2009), 10.
2. David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson, Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), xvi.
3. Rosenheim, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, 15.