Postcards from the RPPC Survey

J. Shimon and J. Lindemann are artists and teachers who understand that the past lives on in the present. You can sign on to be a part of their typology. The following text is a smooshed version of what they present online.

“Journey to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and stand on the black tape line on our studio floor. We expose hand-cut sheets of 2 ASA orthochromatic film, a smooth-grained film similar to what was used 100 years ago to make postcard negatives. The exposure is made with a large silver reflector and strobes to replicate the traditional pre-electric daylight studio. 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. The film is hand-processed and proofed in our darkroom. We contact print the selected 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. Realizing the negatives using these processes deliberately critiques the meaning of realizing the lowliest, democratic folk photographic form–the real photo postcard–using the most extravagant photographic “fine art” materials still available in the 21st century.

“We mail one postcard-size print (5.5″x3.25”) to each person we photograph. A handwritten note on the back of each print completes our exchange with the individual. The postcard print migrates to the person’s specific geographic location–often far away from our studio. The small, dark objects are stamped, imprinted, manipulated by postal machines. Each postcard is delivered by the hand of an unknown postal worker: Mail Art in a time when the mail itself seems like a doomed information delivery system that goes back to the 18th-century. We wet scan the film negatives at high resolution and post .jpgs on [our] blog to produce a digital object viewable by a large audience. We also include hyperlinks to the web presence of each individual (if searchable) or a map of the place from which they traveled to come to our studio. The portraits replicate and turn up on facebook profiles and elsewhere.

“Deciding the time is right to be photographed is an aspect of collaboration not often critiqued. There is always a reason, an occasion and impetus to commission a portrait and it is fraught with complexity and we know them well but have rarely taken the time to list them. Almost every commission portrait becomes evidence of coming to grips with: mortality, sentimentality, nostalgia, humility, utility, vanity, self-conception, identity, metaphysics and the overwhelming cultural compulsion to smile for the camera. All are encapsulated in an ephemeral performance of self standing on the black tape line in silent acknowledgment of the eventuality that we too, like the 100 year old nameless people in the real photo postcards we are also posting on our blog shall pass into anonymity.

“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. The post office was just about all there was. The new-fangled 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.  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 front with a personalized, handwritten message on the back could be mailed for a penny. Postcards traversed space and time more efficiently than any other communication technology of the period. We’ve been accumulating early-20th century RPPC studio portraits (circa 1904-1930). 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 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. The old anonymous postcard portraits are free-floating fragments turning up at estate sales, rummage sales, thrift stores and vintage stores, 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 we collect and post them on the blog juxtaposing them with contemporary individuals as a meditation on time and space. 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, facebook and 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.”

See and learn a lot more about RPPC:

(Thanks, Vicky.)