Luc Sante

Luc Sante discusses his new book

Left: Cover of Luc Sante’s Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930 (2009). Right: A real-photo postcard with the caption “Texas,” n.d.

Luc Sante is a writer and critic. The author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990–2005 (2007), and several other books, he is also visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College. His latest effort, Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930, is out now from Yeti Books.

MY COLLECTION OF REAL-PHOTO POSTCARDS is the result of a chance encounter on New York’s Astor Place, circa 1980, with a street peddler who had fished some forty cards out of the trash, ones that probably belonged to a man who had been at Vera Cruz in 1914 under General Pershing and brought back images of the event. I had never seen anything like them. I like old postcards, but these were actual photographs—printed in the darkroom, rather than lithographed—and it was immediately apparent they were unrehearsed history, unstaged and unposed.

I became immediately obsessed and quickly discovered that at the time you could find these photographs pretty easily, in junk stores and antique shops, and buy them for not much money—as little as a quarter or fifty cents. The range of things they depicted was exciting. I once claimed, and I don’t think I was wrong, that the only human activity I haven’t seen represented on a photo postcard is childbirth. I’ve seen just about everything else, including other bodily functions.

I’m a writer, of course, so everything in my world exists to be turned into a book. I began looking for the broadest range possible, the most marginal examples that were still beautiful photographs. Unlike many collectors, I like messy cards, ones that are damaged in such a way that the damage functions in concert with the image. I probably ended up with more disaster cards than anyone else—train wrecks, fires, floods.

The title I gave the book is more poetic than scientific and is meant to suggest several things. One is the grassroots, leaderless aspect to the postcards. Around 1900, small, portable Kodak cameras became widely available; in 1905, the postal rate for postcards was reduced to a penny; and rural free delivery was advancing at this time. All of a sudden, people everywhere were able to make and send these cards, and, strikingly, you get similar kinds of compositions being made simultaneously in Washington state and New Jersey. Second, I see them, in a nonacademic way, as a link in the chain that connects Civil War and government expedition photographers of the late nineteenth century to Walker Evans and his fellow Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s. Third, the popular documentary impulse these cards represent is similar to the “folk” music of the era, much of which was about news (think of songs about the Titanic or about railroad crashes and murder). The postcards and the music are not only about disseminating information but also about making something of it, meditating on important events.

In a way, I’m eager for somebody to pick a fight with me over the title; I’d love for discussion of real-photo postcards to become woven into other discussions of American photography. So far I’ve only had conversations about them with Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan Museum curator who is in charge of the Walker Evans archive and mounted the exhibition last year of Evans’s postcard collection. Interestingly, Evans’s collection contains no more than three or four photo postcards. Is it the anxiety of influence? Or is it due to the fact that photo postcards essentially went underground for seventy-five years, whereas photo-litho cards were touted and discussed? It’s worth figuring out.

Art history aside, the visual culture this book presents has been, up until the past twenty years, generally neglected. This may be due in part to the fact that little documentation of this stuff was available. Alongside broader trends in visual education and more general generational changes, one development that has made a huge difference is the introduction of the scanner. If you examine photo books made before 2000 or so, the look of them was very unsatisfying. With scanners, you can incorporate the grit and the grain alongside the broad compositional outline of photographic images.

Scanners have allowed us to see anew entire collections of movie posters, say, or grocery-store awning paintings, all of which are as important as any other kind of documentation we may have about life in earlier times. It was just very difficult to reproduce these things before the scanner. Despite the recent inundation of “visual culture” studies, I think we’re really only at the beginning stages of a vast exploration of the popular visual culture created over the past few centuries.