Nothing comes from nowhere, least of all art. Every body of work has its points of origin, its logic of personal urgency and cultural impetus, the coordinates of which are often found in an artist’s childhood.
Sometimes the logic eludes us. Sometimes we can piece it together through intuition, scholarship or the clues an artist leaves behind. Occasionally a skeleton key is passed down that explains more than was ever thought possible. Such was the case with van Gogh’s letters, and in its own way, with “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This exhibition, the first to be drawn primarily from the vast cache of material that Evans’s estate gave the Met in 1994, was organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator in the Met’s photography department.
Evans is foremost a giant of 20th-century photography, the instigator of a lean, elegant documentary style that was as unvarnished as it was ennobling. He immortalized gaunt sharecroppers, dilapidated plantations and bone-dry country stores in the South; worker housing and grimy factories in the industrial North; and (with a hidden camera) the unguarded expressions of New York subway riders.
But before he was anything else, Evans was an obsessed collector of postcards. This exhibition reveals them as the through line, the wellspring of his art.
Born in St. Louis in 1903 and reared in Chicago, Evans started collecting postcards in grade school, years before he failed at his initial goal of being a writer and took up a camera. He collected picture postcards throughout his life, becoming a connoisseur, historian and archivist of the genre. It undoubtedly helped that he grew up during what many consider the golden age of the picture postcard, from 1900 into the ’20s. This heyday was spurred partly by the United States postal service’s 1907 ruling that the blank side of a postcard could include the address of the recipient and a message. Another boon was the drop in cost of offset color lithography, which gave postcards the look of hand-colored images, with soft reds, blues and greens as the dominant hues.
Evans called postcards “folk documents,” and said that when he was a child, whenever his family traveled to some famous landmark, he would make a beeline for the nearest five-and-dime and its rack of postcards. He ultimately amassed about 9,000 postcards that he filed by subject in shoe boxes, leather suitcases and desk drawers. His categories included street scenes, factories, train stations, automobiles, state capitols, hotels and summer hotels, and occupations.
Although small and prosaic, this show is also richly resonant. It presents 700 of Evans’s postcards, arranged in gridded expanses according to subjects that are announced by Evans’s original, hand-labeled dividers, which are also in the grids. The subjects are wide ranging; the colors are beautiful. Evans had a special eye for images in which a pale-colored scene — a beach for example — is punctuated with bits of opaque black, usually figures or horses.
Through his postcard collection, Evans studied to be the artist he would become. He trained himself to see in terms of photographic images, which helps explain how his own pictures became so lucid so quickly in the late-1920s and early ’30s. He was not above copying to learn. His 1929 photograph “Front Street, Looking North, Morgan City, La.” almost perfectly matches the vantage point of a postcard displayed next to it that he owned. The label equivocates about which came first, but the odds that Evans made the picture first and later found a nearly identical postcard seem too high.
The show opens with a bank of postcards that offer plunging views down the middle of scores of American Main Streets, an almost scary tribute to the country’s can-do spirit, can-doing again and again. A memorable Evans image that is not in this show may spring to mind: his 1931 photograph of the rain-slicked main street of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., lined mostly with diagonally parked Ford Model A’s. It is the Main Street postcards distilled, enlarged, crystallized in black and white, with undertones of grim complacency. (Evans disdained color photography until late in life.)
The show includes a smattering of Evans’s own photographs and the postcard prototypes that he made from them in 1935 and ’36; the occasion was a publishing project initiated by the Museum of Modern Art that never came to fruition. Evans had no compunction about radical cropping. It is startling to see good images become better as he reduces background space and brings central forms forward. Cropping intensifies the geometry of everyday life to which Evans was instinctively drawn.
For example the sudden prominence of the ferry on a postcard of Vicksburg, Miss., makes the original photograph look slightly lackluster. The same is true of “View of Easton, Pennsylvania,” even though its original is present here only in reproduction. The closely clipped, game-board-like precision of flat yards, fences and small, boxy houses in the postcard version makes it all but perfect. Also represented here are the original and truncated versions of Evans’s images of frame houses in Virginia and a church in South Carolina, and his “Penny-Picture Display, Savannah.” Its tiny, repeating photo portraits echo this show’s dominant compositional motif. The postcard (listen up, appropriation buffs) almost qualifies as a rephotograph of a rephotograph.
That Evans had a triple dose of the collecting gene is confirmed by a display of some of the other kinds of Americana he zealously accumulated: bottle caps, tin-can pull-tops; old tools and signs, both printed and handwritten, many of which he absconded with once he photographed them.
Evans’s postcards were a happy Rosebud that everyone knew about. Friends sent him cards they hoped would meet his standards. Some are included here, as are used postcards that Evans collected. He savored the handwriting and messages as well as the images.
The postcards also gave Evans a handle for his own achievement. In 1964, in a lecture on his postcard collection at Yale, he coined the phrase “lyric documentary,” and immediately applied it to his art. He defined the term as a celebration of fact subtly modulated by an artist’s innate style, and as a rejection of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs, which he considered strained and called “decadent lyric.” The marvelous photo-album-like book accompanying the Met show includes a transcript of the lecture along with reproductions of the postcards Evans used as illustration.
Evans traced the history of “lyric documentary” to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, forward through Palladio and Henry James to his hero Eugène Atget, the French photographer. In the lecture, Evans called Atget “the supreme lyric documentary photographer,” an understandable accolade. Evans’s postcard collection is a found, Atget-like account of America.
Finally, the show includes all three of the magazine articles about postcards, written, designed and illustrated by Evans. (All are reproduced in facsimile in the book; in the first article the postcards are reproduced with three-dimensional shadows hand-rendered by Evans.) The first appeared in Fortune in May 1948, with the deadpan headline “Main Street, Looking North From Courthouse Square.” Its opening sentence sums up postcards, but also Evans’s art and suggests a not-so-failed writer: “The mood is quiet, innocent, and honest beyond words.”Without diminishing his achievement, this show reverberates beyond Evans. The postcards celebrate America at the beginning of the last century. They also confirm the vigor of this country’s often anonymous grass-roots art forms and the importance of popular culture to so-called high art. More sadly, in a time when schools across the country are slashing their art programs, this unusual exhibition suggests the often decisive effect of our earliest aesthetic experiences. “Home is where we start from,” wrote the psychologist D. W. Winnicott. The richer the formative experiences there, the better for everyone.