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The Photo File: 'Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930'

Luc Sante began collecting the postcards 30 years ago. What's included in this collection: unique moments, the representatively dull, the clearly beautiful.

September 19, 2010|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

Sometimes it takes a small press to make a truly interesting book. Yeti Books, with the help of Verse Chorus Press in Portland, Ore., is behind "Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930." OK, it's a pretty dry title. What makes it interesting is that it's by Luc Sante.

Sante, a cultural critic with an eye for photography, made ephemera something of an art form with his book "Low Life," a chronicle of New York's Lower East Side from 1840-1920; this history of the underclass and outsiders drew on overlooked resources, including police gazettes and eyewitness accounts.

Unofficial, often unsigned, real-photo postcards that make up "Folk Photography" could be snapped by an amateur photographer with a quick eye and a decent tripod, sold and sent through the U.S. mail for a penny starting in 1905. Over the next two decades, their popularity ebbed and flowed, but the form has been moribund since before World War II. Sante's "Folk Photography" is a singular act of turning "Who cares?" into "Oh, wow."

Thirty years ago, Sante began collecting photo postcards serendipitously — they were being sold on the street, intriguing and cheap. The more he looked for them, the more curious he became. "The postcard photographers can give the impression that they are inventing their medium from scratch," he writes, comparing them to modern graffiti artists, "and indeed, for the makers and their contemporary viewers alike, this might as well have been the birth of photography."

Sante's collection has reached about 2,500; just over a hundred appear in the book. It's easy to forget that these weren't just snapshots: They were snapshots made into postcards, stashed away or stamped, written on and mailed. What's included here: unique moments, the representatively dull, the clearly beautiful.

Sante writes:

"We can see how squarely and unhesitatingly these pictures accept their circumstances — the flat facades, the muddy streets, the bad weather, the fleeting pleasures, the endless labor, the meager rewards, the menace of accidents, the presence of death.... All of them had some kind of knack for making the familiar seem new, for turning complicated narratives into terse aphorisms, for showcasing the achievements of their neighbors, for selecting instants that appear summary even when nothing much is happening.... They made a photograph the way somebody else would make a table, or a crop, or a loaf of bread. They were like anybody else in town, but they were its designated eyes."

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