Monday 17 November 2008

Postcards from the City

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.


Anonymous said...

You do have a way of digging up interesting little nuggets don't you! While I'd often seen the bustle on Carré Marigny, I didn't realise it was because the previous owner had decreed it be used in that manner.

A similar hive of activity can be found at the exit of the Jussieu metro station, with (mainly) male pubescents, post-pubescents and perma-pubescents trading in playing cards. Whether the history behind that location is anything like as charming, I don’t know. I guess it’s just because of the substantial student population in the area.

Walked past Jussieu Music the other day: is that place slowly dying or what?

Adam said...

>Walked past Jussieu Music the other day: is that place slowly dying or what?

Sounds like an invisible subject to me! That place is a part of my Parisian 'jeunesse'.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating topic again.
Your motorway picture sure wins the Boring Postcard of the Year award. What at treat!

I personally have doubts about the future of postcards although sales seem to be going strong in Avignon.

Gina V said...

At a brocante last fall a dealer "gifted" me with a box of hundreds of old art postcards [from the Musées Carnavalet, Picasso et al], all for 10 euros[!] because it was the end of the day and she was tired of lugging them home again! It took us hours to sort through them, but now I have a miniature gallery of French art history!
And I agree with you...I much prefer to collect postcards than stamps!

PeterParis said...

Yes, once more very interesting reading!

I have also been surprised how relatively easy it has been to find old postcards from the area where I now live. Some hundred years ago it seems that every street corner was photographed and became a postcard. Of course interesting for the comparisons between before and today!

I haven't been inside and checking, but it seems that the old Hotel de Sens (close to Pont Marie), now a public library (Forney), has a collection of about a million of old postcards. Must go there one of these days!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

I love the marche aux timbres and didn't know about its history. Thanks for the info!

Collecting (postcards, stamps, whatever) is easy -- it's the damned categorizing that will drive a person bonkers.

Gabriela said...

I hope there is a future for postcards. Unfortunately, sending letters is old fashioned now. So we can only hope postcards may survive.
Those Panini albums, we used to have them here in Peru too.
All the best!

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