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programthematic project seriesartistic contributions

introduction : concept : artistic contributions : symposium
Early Postcards – Messengers between Home and Abroad (2005)
Cponcept and Installation
Susanna Kumschick

The flood of images in contemporary society makes it difficult to understand what it meant to gaze at picture-postcards images of foreign cultures and distant worlds in the early 20th century. Long-distance travelling was a rarity and only few who did actually travel took a camera with them. Illustrated magazines and newspapers were yet to reach the market. Thus, it was the affordable picture-postcards that brought foreign countries and their inhabitants to the attention of those who stayed at home. These pictures portrayed a tiny fragment of a foreign world, yet they represent something else in its entirety: a successful journey, a unkown country and a foreign culture.

The postcards presented in the exhibition, which were borrowed from Zurich University’s Ethnology Museum, were produced, sent or collected during the boom years between 1896 and 1930. The postcards’ motifs are predominantly based on photographs taken in Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America. They capture the adventure of long-distance travel and document the European’s pronounced interest for exotic flora and fauna, mysterious rituals and customs and the peculiarities of foreign peoples and cultures.

Soon after its invention in the 1870s, the postcard progressed to become an everyday article enjoying immense circulation. The introduction of photographic templates added to its popularity and the discovery of new printing techniques such as collotype, colour lithography and autotype, smoothed its path to mass acceptance. Benefiting from the efficient and inexpensive postal-service, the postcard soon became the most popular form of communication. The World Post Association, founded in Bern in1875, simplified global postal exchange and the worldwide success of the postcard. After World War I, the postcard’s popularity began to decline. On the one hand, illustrated newspapers and magazines became competitors and on the other hand more and more travellers were taking their own cameras with them. The precarious economic situation also played a major role in the postcard’s demise. The introduction of faster print methods and cheaper materials brought about a reduction in quality and mass produced cards began to dominate the market. Nowadays, their function is contested by the exchange of privately sent digital photos and mails.

Many of the early postcards portray a utopian world, thus fulfilling their intrinsic purpose: to deliver a happy message. There was a great deal of interest in exotic images from foreign countries at the time. Natives were often set against carefully chosen props in studio sessions, all designed to underline their proximity to nature and inherent primitiveness. The foreign characters on the picturesque studio photos represented the antithesis of the modern European man. The fascination was not so much for the individual person, whether part of a group or as single portrait, but for the representatives of an entire people. This is highlighted by text legends on the pictures, which labelled and classified the subject. The typified representation, a distinct postcard characteristic, facilitates its timeless appeal. The belief in realistic reproduction, which was rarely questioned in those days, boosted the charm of images allegedly representing everyday life. These pictures also suggested the travellers desire to observe or even take part in the authentic daily life of exotic cultures – in order to talk about the experience. Even though the postcards were produced with the popular taste of western people in mind, an ethnological interest is often apparent.

The early postcards not only document the initial stages of European colonialism, but also tell the cultural-historical story of tourism. Travelling became increasingly attractive with the networking of global traffic and postcards were consistent travel companions. Their texts and pictures celebrated contemporary mobility and the adventure of being on the move. The belief in technical progress turned railways, steamships and automobiles into popular postcard motifs. Globetrotters, adventurers, colonial officers, scientists, the educated classes, migrants, missionaries and traders – these were the people who made long journeys and influenced the graphic reproduction of their destinations. They bought postcards that together with the “certified” stamp were proof that they had really been there. A few travelling amateur photographers constructed their own postcards and sent such unique examples to their families and friends. Some of these were collected and hung on the wall like trophies from a distant world or put into postcard albums, or even carried around as tokens of a fetish. Others, however, found their way into the collection of a museum.

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