Real Photo Postcard Survey Project 2010 Exhibition
Catalogwith essay by Debra Brehmer and thumbnails of all 55 portraits commissioned through Portrait Society Galleryincludes 12-4x6 postcards for mailing($10, $15 postpaid) still available! For a catalog or commissions contact:
"You like your hat on very well let it be. Look here! No look there! Better look right at me!"
Who & Why
RANDOM VISITORS:We started the postcard portrait project in July 2008 by photographing random visitors to our downtown Manitowoc studio. The people who visited were most often students or other artists passing through the area and usually clad in t-shirts and jeans, which gave the portraits a casual off-the street quality.
EQUIPMENT GEEK-OUT: With each portrait, we tested lighting, film, optics, shutters, film holder construction, developers or printing methods. We'd expose only 2 sheets of film with the results being uncertain on every level. At first we used a decommissioned New York Police Department view camera with vintage wooden postcard format film holders purchased on eBay.
MAIL ART: Eventually we mailed each person a palladium postcard of themselves if it turned out. With the nomadic quality of life we noted we often had an email address and not a mailing address. We liked the idea of the postcard print migrating to the person's specific geographic location. after being stamped, imprinted, manipulated and scuffed by postal machines. The USPS counter person at the Manitowoc post office told us each piece of mail passes through up to 60 machine operations. Postcards are delivered individually by the hand of an unknown postal worker. Their ultimate destiny uncertain. Mail Art in a time when the mail itself seems like a doomed information delivery system.
COMMISSIONS:Commissions have long been an integral part of American studio portraiture and the raison d'etre for the real photo postcard studio portrait of 100 years ago. From January to June 2010, we took commissions through the Portrait Society Gallery, Milwaukee to expand the project and explore this aspect of the postcard portrait genre. Each commission included two signed palladium prints and 100 offset printed postcards to mail as a way to extend the project. Our efforts culminated in an exhibition of 160 postcard-size palladium portraits and 5 life size archival inkjet portraits at PSG running July 23-October 4, 2010. The commissions were scheduled, premeditated and our technique adjusted. We switched to our more reliable 5x7 Deardorff (circa 1950s) and used slightly newer film holders customized to accommodate postcard format film. Deciding the time is right to be photographed is a collaborative aspect of commissions not often reflected upon. We realized that there is usually a reason -- a significant birthday or event -- to commission a portrait which ultimately documents a physical state at that time. Commissions end up fraught with complexities as the commissioner comes to grips with issues of mortality, sentimentality, nostalgia, humility, utility, vanity, self-conception, identity,metaphysics, social convention and more.
STEP 1:Journey to our studio in downtown Manitowoc, Wisconsin and stand on the black tape line. GPS and iPhones will guide you to our door. The body is presented self-styled and "as is" full-length to our view camera. We photograph in the back of our downtown studio. Our cream city brick storefront building was constructed in 1893 by Frank Sixta, an immigrant from Prague whose wholesale wine and liquor business ended with prohibition in 1920.
STEP 2: We expose several hand-cut sheets of 2 ASAorthochromatic film, a smooth grained film similar to what was used 100 years ago to make postcard negatives, contained in various customized and vintage film holders. The exposure is made with a large silver reflector and strobes toreplicate(think Irving Penn) the traditional pre-electric daylight studio at 1/3000 of a second. Thus there is little depth-of-field and little space in the narrow vertical postcard format frame. Any change of posture or stance effects the composition and focus due to the large aperture (f:8). The film is hand-processed and proofed in our darkroom.
STEP 3: We contact print the 5.5x3.25 inch negative in palladium hand-coated on Bergger Cotton 320 gram then exposed by UV light for minutes to hours. There is no retouching. After processing through a series of chemical baths, the print air dries. It is spotted then varnished with Kamarto protect the fragile surface and add depth to the shadows. The process gives a nod to the century-old high art aspirations of American Pictorialists. Using these processes elevates and evaluates the real photo postcard--long considered the lowliest democratic photographic form--by rendering the negative using the most extravagant "fine art" techniques and materials still available in the early 21st century.
STEP 4: We wet scan the film negatives at high resolution and post the .jpgs of individual portraits on this blog to produce a digital object viewable anywhere anyhow anyway. We also include hyperlinks to the web presence of each individual (if searchable) and a google map of the city from which the person traveled.
NEO-REGIONALISM(S): The project pays homage to the “real photo postcard” – a way for isolated people in small Midwestern towns to show-and-tell something about their existence to family and friends in far-away places a century ago via the mail. Mail was delivered several times a day and a postcard was an easy way to dispatch a message within the city, to the next town or across the country.
MATERIALITY: The telephone was just getting started. Thus the post office provided the earliest and most accessible "efficient communication network" bringing information quick-and-easy to rural areas. Additionally, real photo postcards were cheaper versions of the carte de visite or cabinet card. The postcard provided a brief line of news and a photograph, a format that continues to this day in the guise of facebook and the culture of sharing mania now part of our everyday life. A photograph on the frontside with a personalized, handwritten message on the backside could be mailed for a penny. Postcards traversed space and time more efficiently than any other communication technology of the period. From the initial performance of self (standing on the black tape line) to the hand-made palladium prints and the .jpgs posted here to the off-set printed postcard multiples, the RPPC project embodies a range of modes of communication each with a specific syntax.
VERNACULAR FORMS: We've been accumulating early-20th century RPPC studio portraits (circa 1904-1930) oneBay for about $1-5 a piece. Still cheap because postcard collectors and scholars consider them "boring" perhaps due to their studium and ever so rare punctum. Viewed en masse, they form a typology of humanity betraying aspects of class and social status, gender construction and fashion sense, access to manufactured goods and services, mobility and world view. Additionally, the monochromatic abstraction of the person standing before the camera becomes a melancholy document reflecting the subtleties of gesture, clothing or prop choice and nuance of facial expression. Contemporary viewers are given insight into the social decorum and fashion their counterparts a century ago expressed through their choices if they pause to take the time. The full-length portraits, disembodied from their own history, were typically made by anonymous photographers in small towns sometimes itinerant. Only rarely is the subject identified and then only with a handwritten note on the backside often in pencil or fountain pen. These sort of studio portraits are often only of interest to those obsessed with genealogy and they end up retouched and replicated in family trees. The old anonymous postcard portrait are free-floating fragments turning up at estate sales, rummages sales, thrift stores, vintage stores, and on ebay as examples of a form that connects to an ongoing cultural effort, an evolving tradition, to record the individual. They are printed on manufactured silver gelatin paper with a preprinted "post card" back. We scan the old cards and post them on this blog juxtaposing them with contemporary individuals as a meditation on time and space. Will any of these artifacts (paper or digital) survive into the 22nd-century? And if they do, what will they mean?
CONTINUUM: From gods and goddesses to saints and kings displayed on cave, castle, cathedral or museum walls to the recent sassy arms-length self-portraits routinely posted on flickr, facebookand myspace, the early 20th century postcards survive as fragile paper monuments from a technological moment when photographic postcards of individuals were made by the millions. They survive in a continuum of portrayals in all media reflecting the existence of specific individuals at specific times existing in specific places.
EXPRESSIONS: We observed the compulsion to smile for the camera. People often ask us why the people in the old photographs didn't smile. In our estimation: it wasn't part of the culturally conditioned response to a camera as it is today. Tracing the history and evolution of portraiture, we note that mainly the clowns, fools and hicks wore a smile in early paintings and photographs. Not until the invention of the snapshot, fast film, fast shutter speeds, the proliferation of movie star head shots and advances in dentistry did the smile replace the stoic expression typical of early portrait photographs. Head braces and long exposure times didn't help matters.
THE GESTURE: Deliberately staged and posed portraits encapsulate a momentaryephemeralperformance of self. Each person made the journey to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and stood on the black tape line on the floor of our studio. The gesture became magnified when the variables were reduced further and further.
MEMORY & ANONYMITY: We stand beside our camera accepting the eventuality that we too, like the 100 year old nameless people in photo postcards and their photographers, shall pass into anonymity...