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June 17, 2004

Speaking With Hands, and Surreal Postcard Art in Sepia and Screaming Color


* An interesting new exhibition, Speaking With Hands, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, looks at 170 photographs with hands as a subject and theme. These images stretch across a variety of photographic representations, from straight photographs to photomontages to Polaroids. From the overview:

"In October 1993, Henry M. Buhl purchased a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands. This photograph would come to be the cornerstone of a private collection that now includes over one thousand images by the medium's foremost practitioners as well as little-known and emerging artists. Focusing on the theme of the hand, Buhl has gathered images spanning the history of photography, from a photogenic drawing negative made in 1840 by William Henry Fox Talbot to serial Polaroids made in 2002 by Cornelia Parker. The collection also encompasses a comprehensive range of photographic practices, including scientific, journalistic, and fine-art photography, with a strong component of contemporary art."

The website has an interesting selection of images, with explanatory text for each image, that provides a hint of the diversity in this sizeable collection of 170 works. There's also a generous looking but rather pricey catalog available that accompanies the exhibition. The comprehensive online presentation is capped off by a profile of Buhl the collector.

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Herbert Bayer, The Lonely Metropolitan, 1932 photomontage

* Another cool looking exhibition, Postmarked: Real Photo Postcards 1907-1927, at KS Art, highlights a selection of 45 Real Photo Postcards from the collection of artist Harvey Tulcensky. These postcards stand out for the quality of their reproduction, as they are prints directly onto postcard stock...a little bit on the history of the Real Postcard:

"Real-photo postcards are an early breed of postcard, popular just after 1900, where the image is an actual photograph, rather than one reproduced hundreds of times with the photo-engraving process of magazines and books. Real-photo postcards were made possible by the genius of George Eastman, who developed a light weight, hand-held box camera that greatly simplified photography. Since Eastman preloaded each camera with 100 exposures of film, the photographer had only to take the picture--the source of Kodak's famous slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." When the film was completely exposed, the photographer returned the whole camera to Kodak for developing, where he or she had a choice of prints or sepia- colored real-photo postcards".

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Untitled, from Real Photo Postcard exhibition, KS Art

There are many Real Postcards being sold as collectibles and for their nostalgia value online, but the KS Art exhibition looks interesting as it represents a more idiosyncratic collection of images...I would expect that lovers of found and surreal imagery would have a blast, and the exhibition comes recommended by both Time Out and the Village Voice. A gallery of images can be found here. More background on Real Postcards can be found at vintage collectible and nostalgia sites -- here's a typical selection, and articles on the background of the Real Postcard are here and here.

* Finally, postcards from all periods and cultures of the last century seem to be fodder for books, many for nostalgia or camp value (or both). The last time I was in New York, I had a chance to browse through one of the most lavish of these books, Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight, a book of John Hinde Butlin's photographs of his holiday camps made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, designed to be showcased in bright color on postcards. While the initial impression is definitely one of camp and cheap irony, a closer exploration of the photographs reveals a stunning amount of detail, color that makes the eyes bleed, and a series of narrative details that makes any photographer stop and say "How did they manage all that?". One can't overstate how rich the color is...leafing through the pages of the book, it practically establishes another dimension. (Online, the color and detail are fainter -- the highest quality samples are on this page...click on the images to get the large version)

As the book and related articles point out, no other postcard publisher ever went to this amount of effort to capture these types of fantasy images, and it's easy to see the roots of the postmodern, narrative based art and fashion photography of the last two decades in Butlin's postcard photographs. These photographs were part of an exhibition in the UK two years ago, and a good review of the highlights of the exhibition and the details behind the photographs is here, with some images. (A similarly well-written Guardian review is here). An excerpt that reveals tasty details about the process behind the postcards:

"On a more postmodern note, it has emerged that many of these images were not taken by Hinde, who was sufficiently wealthy from the proceeds of his postcard empire to have given up photography by 1965. Instead he employed two young German photographers, Elmar Ludwig and Edmund Nägele, as well as a British snapper, David Noble, to carry on his work. Their task was a complex one that included the setting up of the tableaux, the arranging of often large numbers of holidaymakers who would act out elements of their Butlin's experience in lounge bars, sun loungers and dance halls. Preparation and pre-lighting often took a day, and an image was captured in one shot before the impatient punters grew restless. From his studio in Dublin, Hinde oversaw the colour-separation process that, above all else, invests his work with such an unreal sheen."

As one might expect, this irresistible mix of 1960s/70s kitsch and optimism has avid followers, and there's a site, I like John Hinde, that provides more background along with a more extensive gallery (though the images aren't quite as good looking at this site as they are elsewhere). I can only imagine how amazing (and scary) these images would look blown up on a gallery wall.

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Butlin's Ayr: Lounge Bar and Indoor Heated Pool image by Elmar Ludwig

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Speaking With Hands, and Surreal Postcard Art in Sepia and Screaming Color:

» Guggenheim: Photophilia from gallery hopper
For some reason, thematic collecting strikes me as a particularly extreme form of obsession. I have a rather short attention span, so perhaps it's just me. The Guggenheim is currently showing "Speaking with Hands: Photographs from The Buhl Collection",... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 22, 2004 10:19:20 AM

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