If you want a comprehensive and detailed history of a city and would like to see how fashions and technology have evolved over the last century, ask a deltiologist. In Paris, the deltiologists, or postcard collectors to give them a simpler name, congregate around the Carré Marigny on the Avenue Gabriel behind the President’s residence. This piece of land just off the Champs Elysées was given to the city of Paris by a rich stamp collector in 1887 with the condition that the city allow the land to be used by the stamp collecting community. It branched out in the 20th century to include postcards and other collectibles, and is still lively when in use, which today is Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.
I never understood stamp collecting, but I had a small postcard collection, made up of purchases I’d made on summer holidays. I generally purchased one type, a kind of cartoon style map of regions we’d visited, with a comical smiling sun in one corner. Collecting for me though only seemed reasonable if there was a defined number of objects, such as Panini football stickers, and I soon realised that postcard collecting would be an impossible and never ending task. So I grew older and stopped.
One person who has never stopped though is the British photographer Martin Parr. For nearly 40 years he has built up a formidable collection, numbering over 40,000 weird, wonderful and downright ordinary images, 750 of which he has published in a collection of books. The best known cards in his collection are probably those from a selection which he has labelled boring postcards, which are generally pictures of city modernity, including motorways, service stations and concrete shopping centres. For Parr, the postcard itself is an object of art, and the stories they tell are of endless fascination.
Postcards have rarely been produced without reason. Even the most banal items in Parr's collection are mementos of not so long ago times when people felt great pride in freshly constructed roads or new concrete municipality. It is a reflection of the fact that the postcard has always been as much about documenting as it has about communicating. In the early years of photography, daily newspapers were not technically able to print photographs, but postcards could be produced quickly and inexpensively. This led to an enormous demand for pictures of recent newsworthy events, but also of snapshots of the environments in which people lived, their buildings, streets, parks and shops, and collections began.
Being cheaper to send than letters, a postcard became almost the equivilent of today’s text messages or e-mails. This was a time when postal deliveries were assured several times a day, making it possible to send a card to someone in the same city and receive an answer within hours. In the early years of the 20th century, tens of millions of postcards were being processed by postal systems each week.
Is there a future for postcards in today’s world? Although we are always connected to some form of communication, and despite the ubiquitous nature of cameras, I believe there is a future simply because I still believe in the power of the postcard. They are classic items of design, retaining a size and form which has remained constant. They are also artificial, false representations of what we see, making them impossible to reproduce. They provide idealised versions of reality, taken at impractical hours of the day, from impossible angles with doctored, altered colours. It is for these reasons that they remain fascinating.