At the MFA, a country ready to photograph

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Unknown, “Seen in Chinatown, San Jose, Cal.”Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

“Real Photo Postcards” was curated by Benjamin Weiss and Lynda Klich of the MFA, who is curator of the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive. The archive, which consists of more than 110,000 pieces, is a promised gift to the museum. The check may or may not be mailed. Postcards certainly are. The show is the fourth that the MFA has mounted that is pulled from the archives.

Eastman Kodak developed the real photo process in 1903. Soon other companies began to market their own versions. This new type of postcard allowed all sorts of new subject possibilities. Instead of a postcard being just the standard, mass-produced image of a popular tourist destination (“Wish you were here”) or a famous site (“Guess who’s buried in Grant’s grave “), real photo postcards could contain much more subject-specific images: family occasions, civic gatherings, business promotions, even current events.

Unknown, “Long’s Place Lunch Car”, circa 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

The format’s invitation to granularity makes real photo postcards an invitation to social historians. Hence the show’s subtitle. More than pictures from a nation that changes, these postcards display a changing nation. They’re from 1907-33, and, oh, the places they show: Pratt, Kan. ; Cuba, NY; Wautoma, Wis.; Onawa, Iowa; Tarpon Springs, Florida; Fort Lupton, Colorado; Liberal, Kan.; Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania; Drumwright, Okla.; McMinnville, Oregon; Conconully, Washington; Mentz, NY; Saltair, Utah; Tishomingo, Okla.; Scio, Oregon. ; Harmony, Minnesota; Wild Rose, Wis.; Bonaparte, Iowa. Real Photo Postcards captions can be as captivating as images.

The show is what is even better than its when and where. The images are variously awkward, charming, solemn, moving, confusing, direct, bizarre, deadpan, straight, quirky, patriotic, startling, mundane and, of course, often wonderful. What we see is both deeply other and as familiar as a look in the mirror. That famous opening line of LP Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” “The past is a foreign land”? “Real Photo Postcards” offers more than 300 passports to this country.

That’s a lot of images, even postcard-sized, for the little Ritts and Brown galleries. Both spatially and conceptually, Weiss and Klich reacted imaginatively to such a flood of abundance.

Unknown, ‘Telephone Operator’, 1907 or later.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Frames hold two to six postcards, with two juggernauts holding 64 each. (We will come back to this.) Picture frames hang on the walls. Others are on dividers inclined towards the middle of each gallery. This arrangement wastes little space but does not produce a feeling of clutter. There are excellent explanatory texts, most of them about 3 feet above the ground. Expect to drop. Also, even with this well-thought-out organization, expect to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps the best way to experience the spectacle is to simply wander around first, soaking up the overall effect, until you find yourself captured by a particular image or set of images: a very old model Harley Davidson here, a Coca-Cola sign there, one of three Teddy Roosevelt postcards – and what about those tornadoes they had in 1911 in Antler, ND?

TW Stewart, “Members of the Just Government League of Maryland”, 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Weiss and Klich organized the show by theme. The themes are clearly defined but also helpfully vague: “At Play”, “At Work”, “In the Classroom”, “In the Country”, “Main Street”, “Mass Movements”, “On the Road”, “Religion,” “Problem,” and so on. Think of them as chapters in a book (the show’s catalog is both vast and valuable). Inevitably there is some overlap, but a life without an overlap is not really a life.

Unknown, “The Lions, Scio, Oregon”, 1907.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Two of the themes are worth mentioning here. “In the Studio” includes a model of a photography studio from a century ago. Museum visitors can pose for selfies. One of the accessories is an oversized paper moon. A selection of vintage recordings play softly. One of them is, yeah, “It’s just a paper moon.”

Another section is devoted to the Ku Klux Klan. It has a sad but inevitable meaning. During the 1920s, Klan membership reached troubling numbers – and not just in the South. My Uncle Bill used to tell me how he and his friends were going to throw rocks at the Klansmen who were gathering at Bear Hill, Stoneham.

Unknown, “Teacher in the Classroom”, circa 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Part of the wonder of “Real Photo Postcards” is how it’s visual democracy in action, with so many different races, classes, professions, activities, places. To not include the Klan would have violated the reality of this changing nation. It is also an example of beautiful curatorial connectivity on the part of Weiss and Klich. Exit the Ritts Gallery, up the stairs to the second floor of the Linde Family Wing, where “Philip Guston Now” is exposed, and you will find very different views of the Klansmen.

It’s a bit of elegant curatorship. Another involves these two arrangements of 64 postcards. The postcards that appear there are portraits. Lots of art is found throughout the show. So many images are great examples of vernacular photography. Looking at these two large groups brings to mind what is perhaps the most famous example of the intersection of vernacular photography and art.

Walker Evans took “Penny Picture Display” in 1936. It shows a sign for a photo studio in Savannah, Georgia. The sign consists of 225 miniature portraits: all those average Americans posing for the camera, unaware of the place in posterity that awaits them. “I look at him,” Evans said, “and I think, and I think, and I think of all these people.” “Real Photo Postcards” inspires a similar response.

REAL PHOTO POSTCARDS: Photos of a Changing Nation

At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through July 25. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]


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