Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans’s Eclectic Picture Postcard Collection Featured in Metropolitan Museum Exhibition Opening February 3

Unknown artist


Nine thousand picture postcards amassed by American photographer Walker Evans (1903–1975) are among the fascinating works in The Walker Evans Archive, acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, to be presented at the Museum from February 3 through May 25, 2009, will be a dynamic installation of hundreds of these postcards from Evans’s collection, which he built and refined over the course of 60 years. The direct influence of the postcard on his pictorial style will be demonstrated with the inclusion of a small group of Evans’s own photographs, also from the Museum’s collection.

Walker Evans was the progenitor of the documentary style in American photography, and he argued that picture postcards captured a part of America that was not recorded in any other medium. In the early 20th century, picture postcards, sold in five-and-dime stores across America, depicted small towns and cities with realism and hometown pride—whether the subject was a local monument, a depot, or a coal mine. Evans wrote of his collection: “The very essence of American daily city and town life got itself recorded quite
inadvertently on the penny picture postcards of the early 20th century.…Those honest direct little pictures have a quality today that is more than mere social history.…The picture postcard is folk document.”

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard is the first exhibition to focus primarily on works drawn from The Walker Evans Archive. The installation is designed to convey the incredible range of his collection and to reflect the eclectic and obsessional ways in which the artist organized his picture postcards. For example, Evans methodically classified his collection into dozens of subject categories, such as “American Architecture,” “Factories,” “Automobiles,” “Street Scenes,” “Summer Hotels,” “Lighthouses,” “Outdoor Pleasures,” “Madness,” and “Curiosities.”

For Evans, the appeal of the postcards lay in their commonplace subjects, the humble quality of the pictures, and the uninflected style, which he borrowed for his own work with the camera. The exhibition will include about a dozen of Evans’s well-known photographs that he turned into postcards. To create each of these works, Evans printed a portion of one of his large-format negatives on postcard-format photographic paper. Through the juxtapositions presented in the exhibition, Evans’s photographs seem as anonymous, straightforward, and sincere as the picture postcards he so admired.

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard is organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in the Department of Photographs.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue by Jeff Rosenheim featuring illustrations of picture postcards from Evans’s collection; an essay by Mr. Rosenheim; the artist’s essays on the subject for Fortune magazine in 1948 and 1962; and an illustrated transcript of his 1964 Yale lecture on picture postcards and the documentary tradition, which he gave in lieu of speaking about his own work. The book will also reproduce a rare set of Evans’s postcard-format gelatin silver prints, as well as a selection of postcards the artist received from and sent to his friends, including Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and
Lee Friedlander. The catalogue is published by Steidl (Göttingen, Germany).

The Museum will offer an array of educational programs in conjunction with Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard. Highlights include gallery talks given by exhibition curator Jeff Rosenheim at 11:00 a.m. on February 27, March 10, March 31, April 14, April 29, and May 12; and a teacher workshop consisting of online discussion and activities, live webinars, and an in-person workshop led by Jeff Rosenheim, Nora
Kennedy, William Crow, and Herminia Din.

Metropolitan Museum of Art