Postcards occupy a unique space within the history of photography. Firmly rooted in photography's vernacular and populist nature, they show us distant lands, tourist traps, beautiful vistas and landmarks. Although largely a novelty of the past, and replaced by status updates, tweets and emails, postcards still hold power as missives from far-flung places – haptic affirmations of existence, travel and remembrance. I was here. I thought of you. Look at this. Like found photographs, given enough time, and with the right context, old-postcards and their imagery of a world and people long gone can give birth to new meanings that shift, expand or shrink with each generation. Unmoored from their original context, they offer us a glimpse into the often strange and suggestive possibilities of photography.
Anne Sophie Merryman's book Mrs. Merryman's Collection purports to be a collection of postcards inherited from her grandmother, who passed away before she was born and shares her name, but all is not as it seems. Collected from the late-30s until the 80s, the postcards were never sent or received by Merryman's grandmother, but collected over the years for their striking imagery. Bearing stamps and postmarks from Spain, France and Africa, the postcards come from all over the world. Each postcard is shown full-size with the front on one page and the back presented on the reverse page. This simple design replicates the act of paging through a pile of postcards, but also allows you to read the messages and savor the physicality of each postcard. Although not all have messages, when they do, the correspondences are usually cryptic or cursory and reveal little about the images. Written in French, Spanish or English, the flowing script is often hard to read or indecipherable.
The pictures themselves are incredibly strange and don't resemble any postcards you're likely to encounter in even the most well-hidden or remote flea market or antique shop. After all, who makes a postcard of someone delicately laying out a piece of paper, a stuffed monkey head, a hand gently touching a mirror, or a ventriloquist dummy? Small, precious and unnerving, they more often resemble the poetic work of Masao Yamamoto than the kinds of vernacular postcards that shuttled back and forth across the globe in the mid-20th century. Unlike postcards you might find, the images and their subject in the book are rarely identified. Rather than offering exotic or prosaic views of distant lands, the images are a series of surreal puzzles and non-sequiturs.
Reshuffled and given a new context, the meanings of vernacular or found images are easily transformed. The mystery of the collection relies in part on this simple maneuver. With most old photographs, and compelling stories, we want to believe, but still question. Who are Anne Sophie Merryman and her grandmother? Are these real postcards? Where did she get them? Do the two women even exist? Or is it all the creation of another artist – a matryoshka doll of artistic conceits, layered and perplexing to untangle? Merryman exploits our desire to believe these images and her story to hook us, to convince us that each side of the postcard have always been joined and are not a transmutation, a collaborative half-truth of the past and present. Across generations, these postcards are a daydream of real and imagined places – journeys taken or fantasized, objects and moments encountered.
Real or fake, a curious sleigh-of-hand occurs in this unassuming collection that blurs the lines between Merryman and her grandmother. The back of the book contains a telling detail – a tiny red square in the middle of the page. Two pages are sewn together with red thread. At first glance, there is only the dedication to Merryman’s grandmother on the backside, but sealed in-between the pages are the title and Merryman’s own name – suggesting a fused and inseparable identity. Hidden below the surface, woven together across generations, dreaming parallel dreams, both seduced by the mystery of photography. The two act as one. In the end, the creator and collector are never far apart. You only need flip the page.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.