Friday, August 26, 2011


For most of this summer I've been devoting this space to looking at images and inscriptions from some century-old postcards, trying to understand something of what such humble artifacts might have to say about the people who made and sent them and the world in which they lived. This faded "real photo postcard" and its dapper subject will finish the theme for now, not because it's exhausted but because I want to sail other waters as well.

The man, perhaps a prosperous farmer, is wearing a straw boater, light-colored pants and vest, a white shirt, and a dark tie with some sort of clasp or pin; beneath his folded sleeves you can also make out part of the chain of a pocket watch. The elaborate decorated border -- perhaps a common stock device, although I haven't come across another example so far -- echoes the vegetation behind the figure, which appears to be pea vines. Above the photo there's a space that was obviously intended for an inscription, but it's been left blank. There are some faint oval blisters in the paper that are apparently the result of flaws in the developing process.

From the markings on the back, which was never addressed, it can be determined that the variety of Azo photographic paper on which the card was printed was manufactured between 1907 and 1918. The previous owner thought that the location of the photo might have been the small upstate New York town with the improbable Homeric name of Ilion, which will do for a working hypothesis. In any case the man's identity is probably unrecoverable, unless by chance another likeness survives somewhere in a photo album, labelled "Uncle Theo, 1912" or something like that. Somewhere, no doubt, his name, perhaps otherwise forgotten, can be found inscribed in the ink of census records or an old family Bible, but nothing now connects it to this fading chemical memory of a man who once posed in his garden on a summer afternoon, wearing his finest suit of clothes.

We live in a world that is saturated with pictures, moving and still, the vast majority of which are created to serve commercial or political purposes or just to provide an instant's ephemeral amusement. We've become so desensitized to the torrent that we forget the alchemy that lies behind every photographic image, as well as the utter strangeness of being able to view, in meticulous detail, the visible trace of where one man stood for a second a century ago, squinting a bit in the sunlight, no doubt little reflecting on the possibility that his monochrome ghost would linger long after him and reappear to the eyes of a distant stranger decades after his bones had been laid to rest.

No comments: