Real Photo Postcards: The beauty of imperfection

Collectors of real photo postcards are concerned with condition. The term “mint” is applied to a perfect card, a card that is just like it was when it was produced.  At the other end of the continuum are cards with stains, creases, rips, damaged corners and pin holes, or those that have been trimmed and/or have other disfigurations. Mint is desired and the cards too far from that condition are inferior, damaged goods. Many advanced collectors will only buy cards that are near mint condition.

Several factors can complicate this simple scheme. Cards sent through the mail cannot be classified as mint: they have addresses, messages, postal marks and stamps. In addition they have been handled by the writer, postal workers and recipient and thereby have signs of wear. Some collectors fancy sent cards especially if the card’s message, address, and postmark enhance their knowledge of the image. Messages can put the picture in the context of the personal lives of the senders. Postmarks can help date and locate the card’s place of origin. Mailing helps establish that the card is not a reproduction. But collectors weigh the added value that mailing provides against the damage that the card endured by handling. Even in the case of mailed cards, mint-like is desired.

Photo postcards had other uses besides sending messages. Many real photo postcards were produced for the photographer’s own keeping or taken by village photographers for a family’s exclusive use. At least half of the photo cards produced for sale to the general public were never mailed. Bought by locals, they were placed in family albums or boxes as a way of documenting their own lives and the history of their community. People viewed their collections and handled them alone and with family and friends. Cards facilitated social relationships and ties to and within the community. As people lost interest in postcards they stored their collections in attics and other places not conducive to their preservation.

The utilitarian and social uses of photo postcards raise some interesting issues about how to think about condition. The continuum of mint to damaged has its origins in the world of art photography. In this collecting area people are very finicky about condition. Not only are art photography buyers interested in prints in perfect condition but they are scrupulous in examining the quality of the printing and other aspects of production. Some photo postcards were taken by photographers who are recognized in the art world as important. One can argue that these cards should be held to the condition standards of the art world. Very few photo postcards are of that kind.

The clash between art world sensibilities and postcard aesthetics vividly came to life for me a few years ago. I approached a curator of a local art museum about doing a show devoted to an outstanding real photo photographer, Henry Beach. I showed him a few images including the photo of the man, at left.

The man pictured, Huckleberry Charlie, was a local character who dressed in unusual outfits and sold newspapers and huckleberries in towns around Pine Camp, N.Y. The curator said that he loved the image but it was so small and the photographer had ruined it with the prominent caption. I tried to explain to him that the size and the caption did not ruin the picture; it was part and parcel of the genre. Like captions and size, condition is an issue that needs to be seen as part of the genre.

I recently purchased this RPPC of an African-American girl. Although it was never sent through the mail it has what collectors would call condition problems. There is some discoloring, rounding of the corners, and an illegible scribble down the left side. In addition to its condition, the card has printing flaws. The border of the image is ill-defined and there are large spots on the lower part where some impurities entered the printing process.

The picture falls far short of the art world criteria of mint. In spite of these alleged flaws I purchased it. After I examined it I decided that what others might see as problems actually enhanced the image.  The imperfections conveyed the picture’s authenticity. This is not a picture taken by an outsider documentary photographer to depict the dominance of white culture on an African American child. It was probably taken by an amateur photographer who was an intimate of the child and unaware of the racial connotation we attribute to the portrait. The blemishes told me that the image had been touched by people who were close to the child and to their ancestors. This was a real document of life not a document created by an elite visitor to depict someone else’s life.

Most advanced collectors turn up their noses at cards with thumbtack holes. I own a number of cards with those holes. My assumption is that tacks were used by the original owner to display the card on his or her personal space. The hole provides tangible evidence that the image was important and meaningful enough to have it adorn the owner’s walls.

Signs of use and printing flaws can increase the aesthetics of the photo card, much like patina and wear enhance the beauty of folk art and other antiques. Pristine lily-white backs and unflawed prints are the requirements for a photograph hanging in art gallery. But those same qualities in a photo postcard detract from their value as folk documentary and historical artifact. Walker Evans traveled to rural areas and took strikingly poignant photos of people and places he encountered. If he took the picture of the African American child we would expect the condition of the print to be clean and flawless. He was a professional photographer with ties to the art photography world. We should not apply those criteria to photograph taken by a local photographer for local use. Doing that distorts its meaning.