Saturday, May 17, 2014


Around the beginning of the 20th century a marriage took place between two nascent media: the postcard, which was becoming the source of an enormous international craze, and amateur photography, a hobby democratized by Eastman Kodak's affordable and portable cameras. The result was the "real photo postcard," continuous-tone photographic prints made directly onto postcard stock, huge numbers of which were created by both amateurs and professionals. While the professional studios made both individual portraits commissioned by customers and mass-produced souvenir postcards in runs of thousands, the amateurs generally made unique prints. Large numbers of the latter survive; although designed to be mailed, many never were, or were enclosed in envelopes and thus never postmarked. Some of the images are fascinating (there are several excellent books devoted to them) but most are fairly dull. They were made for a specific purpose, as keepsakes, to exhibit the likeness of a loved one or the old homestead or the graduating class, imbued with meaning for the photographer and the recipient, but not conveying much to strangers. Separated from their context, they are largely mute.

The obvious amateur image at the top of the page is a little different; while it presents no drama, it does give us a sense of the subject's location and integration within an active, occupied urban space. The card stock was produced by Velox, a company acquired by Kodak in 1902, and this particular variety, which is marked "Made in Canada," was probably manufactured between 1907 and 1914. It bears no address and no identification of the woman in the foreground, although based on provenance I suspect that it was taken in the province of Quebec, perhaps in Quebec City itself. The pyramidal roofs of the skyline at right might potentially make an exact identification of the location possible.

Half of the woman's face is in shadow, as is the street behind her, and a stray fiber appears to have been captured in the printing process at top right, but the image is not without interest in spite of these flaws. If you look carefully (a magnifying glass helps), you can make out on the left side several figures stoop-sitting down the length of the block, the second set of stairs has some kind of ornate stencilled pattern on its vertical surfaces, and there may be an awning projecting from a storefront in the far distance. And then there are the overhead wires, which, like almost everything in this picture, provide a glimmer of connection. The poles, the wires, the street, the sidewalk, the stoop-sitters, the buildings clustered together, all speak of a world in which the texture of an individual's existence is inextricably entwined in sophisticated networks of interaction, communication, transportation, and marketing.

There's no snow on the sidewalk, but there appears to be some piled against the curb on the far side of the street. The child sitting closest to us, who is paying no attention to the woman or the photographer, is wearing a snug wool cap. It's perhaps the end of winter, and the woman has likely removed her own head covering to pose for the camera. A moment later she will move away, but the city that surrounds her will keep on humming even when she's gone.

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