When darkness falls across the postcard universe, a team of photographers and artists combine to produce some weird and wonderful effects. What a joy to discover that an entire book has been written on the subject. Professor John A Jakle’s book, Postcards of the Night is sub-titled Views of American Cities and includes a gallery of about 80 choice examples. There’s an introductory essay in which he explains, in jargon-free language, something of the exhilaration that these views can induce. Each card has a commentary in which the author reveals himself as something of a connoisseur of some of the curious pictorial conventions and as an admirer of some of the more bizarre effects inadvertently achieved by photo-retouching.
Most of the dramatic night scenes of great American cities are no more than recoloured versions of daytime scenes. The application of chromatic twilight fell to artists with a wide divergence of skill levels. Some were extremely proficient in the art of applying invented moonlight and achieved consistency of shadows in the cloudscape and landscape that put many of their colleagues to shame. Some understood that it would be unlikely that every window in a crowded cityscape would be equally illuminated while their colleagues produced images in which every single window blazed forth in an orgy of illumination. Some were able to describe the atmospheric glow of artificial light sources while others would show light spewing forth like water from a showerhead.
What is curious is that the degree of skill deployed is not the determining factor in the power of the images. Some of the most mysterious and poetic images have been worked on by artists of no more than modest competence. There are images in the book that powerfully convey the sense of hidden menace that lurks in the shadows in neon lit city streets. Others convey the sense of excitement and anticipation to be found in streets dedicated to entertainment and pleasure. There’s a sense of dislocation to be experienced when confronted by the familiar enveloped in darkness and that can be found here too, as if the great Victorian master of North Country crepuscule, Atkinson Grimshaw had taken a painting holiday in the American Mid-West. These cards are a few examples of the genre drawn from my own collection.