Saturday, June 18, 2011

Postcards, continued

Below, two more examples of the mutability of historical images, as filtered through various technologies employed in the mass reproduction of postcards in the first half of the 20th century.

This Real Photo postcard from an unnamed commercial studio (almost certainly the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co.) depicts the Waldo-Hancock Bridge in Bucksport, Maine. The bridge was completed in 1931, so the image probably dates from the early 1930s. (A newer structure at the same location was completed in 2006.)

In the postcards below, which appear to be later modifications of this image, the steamer becomes a sail boat, or disappears entirely, obeying whatever the whims of marketing or aesthetics were at the time they were produced. Despite extensive retouching and radically shifting color palettes it seems almost certain that the card images began as copies of the photographic print. The bushes and trees in all three views have almost exactly the same branch structure and orientation, even though in one of the views an attempt has been made to suggest fall foliage.

The next two postcards show the Equitable Building in Manhattan. The first, postmarked 1919, is from an unknown publisher and is probably a tinted halftone. The second version shows a virtually identical perspective -- note the horse-drawn wagon at bottom left -- but by day. All of the indications of night seen in the former image -- the moon, the dark clouds, the illuminated windows, and the glowing lamps above the sidewalks -- are artifacts of the printmaking process, as are the sky coloring, the red of the adjoining building, and the flag in the daytime card. Underlying both cards is the ghostly trace of a single black and white photographic original, now possibly lost.

Mass-produced postcards were never intended to meet high evidentiary standards, of course, but their wide distribution must have had a profound effect on how people regarded their surroundings and how they interpreted two-dimensional representations of sights both familiar and distant. These cards sought to portray a real world but they also built imaginary worlds as well.

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