Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard: An Obsession and a Source of Inspiration

Photographer Walker Evans began collecting picture postcards as a child, amassing 9,000 of them in his lifetime. A new book, written by Jeff Rosenheim and published by Steidl and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with an exhibition at the Met in NYC, now provide the opportunity to view a sampling of this collection, and to examine the importance it had in Evans’ vision of the world.

Before he ever picked up a camera, Evans was admiring these simply composed pictures of houses and towns, streets and signs. Their straightforward style of shooting and the subject matter illustrated were exactly what Evans would soon be pursuing in his own photography. Uncannily or purposefully — no one will ever know for sure — Evans actually made photographs of some of the same places represented in the postcards he collected.

The book’s author references both Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly collection and Andy Warhol’s fascination with daily ephemera — which the latter accumulated in cardboard boxes he called “time capsules” — as other examples of creative people’s obsessions. Evans was, in fact, so fanatical about his postcards — kept in shoeboxes and suitcases and organized under countless topics, such as skyscrapers, curiosities, bridges, and schools — that he used them to illustrate magazine articles and lectures. Facsimiles from Fortune magazine, where Evans was special photographic editor for many years, and an illustrated transcript of a 1964 lecture that he delivered at Yale, where he taught, are reproduced in the volume.

Evans even made postcard-size images of his own photographs, in an attempt to have them sold in the late ’30s at the Museum of Modern Art — where he would later be given his first major exhibition, American Photographs. Replicated in the book, in the context of his postcard collection, they show us the way that he saw the two pursuits as interchangeable. In 1973, Evans gave a lecture on his collection at MoMA — at a time when pop art was waning, minimal and conceptual art were having a heyday, and new ideas, related to media, were brewing.

The MoMA lecture was transcribed for a volume of the postcard collection that was already underway; but before Evans could complete his work on it, he suffered a massive stroke and died. Now, 34 years later, this carefully considered book has been published in its stead, and we are finally able to explore both sides of the artist’s passion.

The exhibition Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through May 25.

Image: Unknown artist, Woolworth and Municipal Buildings from Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1910s