I don't think that this section needs a justification.
There was never a rationale to the postcards I kept. I was attracted to
de-populated town scenes (usually in the United States) where the main
visual attraction was a Post Office, Library or Bank, in the colours of
a Battenberg Cake. The more idealised the glazed colour surface, the better
The eager pushiness of the Monument in the Park commemorating
an event best left forgotten, was much treasured. Also the depiction of
scenes of tourists gazing blankly at a pile of horse dung purporting to
be the Plymouth Rock solved many of the problems I had with the world.
That there were probably thousands
more of this particular card was no deterrant. Collectors seek the comprehensive.
Not me. With Postcards I felt part of a community that scrutinised
and kept things in mind in case they were needed. Go to Phil Beard's "notes
on the visual arts and popular culture" to see
how discriminating selections of imagery, choice of details and historical
research of postcards can provide a coherent body of stunning imagery
while expressing the personal.
Only when I scanned my cards into a computer (and in
particular for the 27 inch screen and its Cinerama proportions) did it
become clear what hidden incidents, tensions, and inert objects lurked
in these commercially available images.The locations were interesting enough,
the focus of tourist curiosity self-evident, but the photographic distortions,
aberrant colours and inadvertent human encounters were so fascinating that
I found myself returning to them on a regular basis. Art didn't seem to
work that way.
The handwriting, no matter how ominous or intimate,
was of little attraction to me. It was the picture alone that seized
attention, not the address and identity of the recipient - the provenance
and the social observance. Of particular talismanic power was that card
upon which stamps had been stuck in places on the front where least damage
would be done to the visual proposition. Compelling too is the text that
spills over from the reverse and crawls about the white frame. To be perfect
this must be accompanied by a mark indicating the location of the holiday
room or park bench.
The closer the scrutiny,
the more I suspected that there was one individual who was always present
in the Postcard, confident his intervention would never be spotted. Sometimes
he lurked in the topiary or could be seen at an upper window. I have seen
him dressed as a priest, a butcher, and in a sailor suit pretending to
be a child. The more the surface of printed dots gives way, the more obviously
it is him.
He is perhaps a presiding official designated with the
task of arranging reality for the professional photographer. It clearly
was a job handed down from Father to Son, and not delegated to the distaff
side of the Family. And were these boys busy!
For all I know, the dramatis
personae, the staffage on the cards, may also be a constant, no matter
what the year, the culture or the subject matter. Postcards are staffed
by a repertory company booked many months ahead and as stable and predicatable
as that used by Preston Sturges in his movies. You'll find the Ale and
Quail Club deployed on every seafront walk in my selection. Hence the familiarity
with which they greet each other.
"Teddy... it's you. Smart blazer, old
"Well hiya Buster. You've lost weight. See
you in Atlantic City..."
" At three?" -
"We're running late. Make
If you don't know about these things, make sure you have
• Tom Phillips, The Postcard
Century 2000 cards and their Messages Thames & Hudson 2000
• Elizabeth Edwards, We are
the People... Postcards from the collection of Tom Phillips, National Portrait Gallery London 2004
• John Jakle, Postcards of the
Night, Views of American Cities, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003
• Jeff Rosenheim, Walker Evans
and the Postcard Steidl/MOMA
Avoid books with titles such as Postcards of Old Sheppey,
Bygone Bournemouth, with drab topographical exercises in nostalgia, badly
printed and not an ounce of Pep.
NOT TO BE MISSED
PHIL BEARD'S POSTCARD MEMORY PALACE