Luc Sante, author of that great history of vice on the Bowery, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, apparently collects early 20th Century picture postcards. From his collection of more than 2500 cards he assembled his latest book Folk Photography, The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930 (Yeti/VerseChorus, 2009).
Sante distinguishes Real-Photo Postcards from the more widespread photo-litho cards of the day, as the former were printed in darkrooms, on photo paper, and in limited runs. They originally appeared as a result of several key convergences. In 1905 the postal service inaugurated the penny postcard rate, and then Rural Free Delivery the following year. At about the same time photography became more accessible to the layman thanks largely to the advent of simpler developing processes and cheap cameras. Before long every lonesome whistle-stop in Prairieville had its local photog, ready and able, for a fee, to document people and events in sepia tone to show to the folks back home.
This plain-faced popular form, which Sante reminds us was an essential means of communication during its day, was derided by the guardians of more self-consciously arty-farty photography of the time. Alfred Stieglitz considered the subjects of most photo postcards too banal, and their execution too amateurish. However, in his accompanying treatise, Sante argues for the democratic quality of the real-photo postcard. Borrowing crit-speak from Barthe’s Camera Obscura, he insists that the best RPPCs qualify as art, as they possess both studium and punctum. That is, they both capture something essential about their time and place, the studium, while also “puncturing” the viewer with their emotional power.