Friday, 27 February 2009


This is one of Paris’s most clamorous, raucous and cacophonous crossroads. Three arrondissements meet at the intersection, the 9e, 10e and 18e. It’s a maelstrom of conflicting traffic flows and tailbacks overshadowed by the Métro Aérien that clatters overhead on a muscular viaduct supported by massive steel columns. The combined sounds of trains and traffic dictate that human speech has to be delivered at maximum volume. When this acoustic aggregation reverberates from the sub-surface of the overhead railway, the decibel level approaches the red zone. There’s a constant flux of pedestrian movement and an ethnic mix that reflects the full range of Francophone post-colonial economic migration.

Crude but assertive graphics compete for attention from every vertical surface. At street level, the Tati store stretches west along Boulevard Rochechouart offering its attractions to the less affluent bargain-hunter. It functions as an antithesis to the grands magasins while the blue and pink colour scheme and branding brings a new dimension to the French reputation for excellence in the arts of display. Diagonally opposite on the corner of Boulevard Magenta is the facade of the long closed Egyptian-styled cinema, the Louxor. This is the subject of a protracted restoration project scheduled to begin next year (2010). Read more about it by following this link. There is a pervasive quality of dilapidation to the crumbling and unloved frontages. A special pleasure is to note that the name of Jean Cocteau has been immortalised by attaching it to a car park. Others in this vein might include the André Breton Laundrette or the Guy Debord Déchetterie.

The Métro station, Barbès-Rochechouart, is the westernmost stop on the elevated section of Ligne 2 where trains and track make a spectacular plunge into the subterranean gloom, en route for Anvers and Porte Dauphine. Below ground, Ligne 4 provides links to the Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancourt to the north and Chateau d’Eau with its African population to the south. The locality is close to la Goutte d’Or district with a long established North African population, an area extensively prowled by Richard Cobb on his journeys of urban discovery. A little further to the east are the twin ferrous corridors feeding trains into Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est. If you have visited Paris and feasted well on the treasures of the Right Bank, Left Bank, Grands Boulevards, it might be time to experience a very different aspect of the city with a trip to Barbès.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard

Walker Evans is my favourite photographer. I’ve flirted with many other excellent practitioners but I always come back to Evans. From the landmark FSA photos to the late colour work and Polaroids, everything is the product of a distinctive sensibility and demands serious attention. The work he did for Fortune magazine is equally fascinating and I have many of the portfolios in their original form as published. For over 30 years (1934-65) Evans had his photographs published in the pages of Fortune and eventually manoeuvred himself into the enviable position of virtually self-publishing in a mass circulation magazine as he graduated from staff photographer to associate editor. He had the authority to initiate his own projects and he pushed the technical staff to the limits of their abilities in his demands for excellence in print quality. He was even permitted to indulge his personal obsessions and in May 1948 Fortune published a four page portfolio of colour reproductions of “postcards from the trolley-car period” (life size and complete with drop shadows) from Evans’s collection under the title “Main Street Looking North From Courthouse Square”. This was the first published evidence of a collecting activity that had absorbed Evans since childhood.Follow this link to the wonderful world of Visual Telling of Stories to view the article.

One of my more pleasant recurring dreams is acquiring a copy of a spectacular illustrated book on a subject dear to my heart, lost in wondrous reverie that its existence had been unknown to me. (These sumptuous volumes usually turn out on awakening to have titles like The Definitive Atlas of Thimbles or An Architectural History of the Cricket Pavilion, Volume 2, The Renaissance.) Occasionally one of these books makes a surprise and most welcome appearance in the real world and one such is the recently published, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard. Evans had a very special passion for postcards and his collection numbered over 9,000 and is now the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Jeff Rosenheim, now described as “the foremost scholar of Walker Evans” has made a choice selection for inclusion in this book to accompany the exhibition, although just how choice no one can say without seeing the other 8,000+ that had to be left out.

Evans was an unorthodox collector of cards. He had no interest in collecting for its own sake in definitive and narrow categories – his prime interest was in the vernacular and visual qualities. The unconscious and unsought poetic image captured his imagination. He rejoiced in the happy accidents and the wonders of photographic retouching. Vintage postcards often went through an exhaustive editing process in which it was as common for the retoucher to add features of interest as to eliminate unwanted intrusions. These interventions, made with wildly differing levels of skill, often add another layer of mystery to the image with discrepancies of scale and visual inconsistencies. Indeed, on many occasions, the greater the incompetence, the more profound the sense of mystery. Evans commented on the number of occasions on which the unwanted intrusion, often in the form of undistinguished means of transport (horse and buggy, steam tram, vintage vehicle), became the prime focus of interest for a future generation. Postcard images also possessed the facility to unintentionally recall images from the world of Fine Art. The tilting planes and perspectival plunges of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings can be seen in many a vintage postcard.

This is no place for objectivity. I have to confess that the Evans vision of a world in postcards is irresistible to me. The idea of a lyric documentary in which the neutrality of an accumulation of mechanically acquired visual data is systemically undermined by the process of reproduction and consumption, is extremely attractive. The original image is successively processed in terms of adding colour, retouching by addition or subtraction, adjustment of tonal qualities, resizing for portability, and cropping to fit. By the time this process is complete, the resulting image describes a world that has never existed. It’s at this point that it can burrow deep into the imagination, becoming the stuff of dreams and fantasies, and posing all sorts of questions about how we see the world around us. The visual grammar of postcards creates a parallel reality in which the familiar and commonplace is subtly transformed into a new and enhanced visual experience. In one of several lectures delivered on the subject of postcards, Evans memorably quoted from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Gift, in which the author describes to perfection the sense of quiet wonder that the recollection of the unremarkable passage of a train through the landscape can inspire. Nabokov’s unique ability to analyse the sense of time past clearly struck a chord with Evans as he recognised a kindred spirit.

The lazy response to this book is to dismiss the images as a feast of unhealthy nostalgia. Nostalgia is something that begins as harmless fun, sharing reminiscences from a distant era or responding to visual triggers that transport the mind back to an all but forgotten past. Where it ends is far from harmless as it degenerates into a pervasive sourness of intellect in which all experience of the present is filtered through a largely imaginary sense of a lost Golden Age from which all past horrors have been erased. It seems to be the fate of every generation in turn to surrender to this comforting fiction. Unfortunately many of the most reactionary expressions of the human spirit have their origins in these acts of selective memory. When nostalgia corrodes the soul, the sense of a false and imagined past becomes fixed as the only desirable template for the present leaving no space for alternative historical interpretation and denying the possibility of human creativity in the present. There’s a very strong case for designating nostalgia as a controlled substance.

So, all this waffle is designed to armour-plate this postcard fan from accusations of being a consumer of nostalgic imagery. A sudden encounter with a familiar scene as it existed in the past produces a fascination that can often have a nostalgic inflection but this does not lead to a burning desire to see the unsightly telegraph lines of yesteryear reinstated or a return to the days of unregulated, large scale advertising images and slogans applied to every available vertical surface. But, what we can learn from postcards about early advertising is that its practitioners were no less sophisticated than their modern descendants and equally untroubled by moral scruples.

Evans as an artist was propelled by an inexhaustible curiosity about the visual world that he maintained to the end of his life. Postcard imagery was just one expression of his search for very specific visual sensations. The great joy of this book for the postcard addict like myself is that what is often seen by others as a completely valueless and self-indulgent activity devoid of purpose is worthy of serious consideration and can actually have an unsuspected significance. It was pleasing to discover that 3 of the postcards reproduced in this book are also in my collection (that’s 3 out of 9,000) and are included in this posting together with a small selection that I hope would have met with his approval.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Le Belvédère

Another glimpse of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. The Belvedere stands at the highest point of the park and offers the finest views across the city of Paris. The colour photo is from a visit in December 2007. The postcard takes us back a century and is populated by a broad cross section of citizens of the 19ème. As usual, the local children have turned up in force for the photo-opportunity and present a wide range of attitudes from self-absorption and relaxed charm to brazen impudence. Two boys perch on the iron railings and another has clambered over the top to push himself into the foreground. On the extreme right, a saturnine individual favours us with an inscrutable glance as he exits the picture space. The image below shows part of the view from the Belvedere looking northwest along the avenue de Laumière.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Time Out in Paris

The Insider’s Guide to Paris, illustrated here in best comic postcard style in 1984. This came at the tail end of Britain’s Golden Age of Editorial Illustration. Later in the decade art editors increasingly favoured photographic or computer generated images and illustration began to resemble an endangered species. Twenty-five years later the clichés endure. Les rosbifs with their red complexions, looking the worse for drink, sample the delights of café life. We travel to Paris this afternoon via Eurostar but there’s little chance of this scene being repeated thanks to the winter freeze and the new, slim-line pound. An even greater incentive to seek out the less frequented districts of the city in search of vrai Paris.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Eyes on the Prize

Brian Sibley, distinguished author of the Book of Guinness Advertising (still the best book on the subject) and many other things besides, has done me the honour of nominating this blog for a Premio Dardos Award (visible on the left), given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing (their words, not mine). It sounds very grand and I must thank Brian for my nomination. I, in turn, have nominated my colleague from Monkey Brand to accept the award on my behalf in recognition of his invaluable contribution to this blog (see illustration above). I’m now required to nominate five other recipients of this award. Despite an instinctive suspicion of anything that has a chain-letter element, I shall swallow my misgivings but if it continues on an exponential growth curve every blog in existence will eventually be a recipient! Anyway, here goes. In no particular order, the blogs I value most are as follows.

Pignouf is an intrepid and daily explorer of the highways and byways of vintage graphics. Vintage Poster is one of those places where I can be almost certain of being surprised by something I’ve never seen before.

Studio notes from the Santa Monica-based contemporary painter Gregg Chadwick. I discovered this via Librarything and was impressed by the quality of writing and the way that he spoke for a Liberal America whose voice had been all but drowned out in the Bush era. Some of his best writing is about individual paintings – his own and those of others, but he also ranges across contemporary politics and Americana. He can be serious, humane and intelligent without ever being priggish or pompous. Not many blogs can achieve this.

Leif Peng has dedicated his superbly illustrated blog to mid-century graphics and illustration. He has made personal contact with many of the living survivors from the era and collected a huge amount of fascinating recollections. What pleases most is the quality of respect that he gives to these unsung practitioners whose work has hitherto been largely ignored. Today's Inspiration is an admirable labour of love performed on an entirely not-for-profit basis.

Life in a Postcard Mirror is a recent discovery. The author, Debra Gust, has a most enviable job working for the Curt Teich Postcard Archives in the US. She has a fabulous resource on which to draw and she quotes the words of the great Walker Evans at the top of her blog.

Agence eureka is an astonishing and vast compendium of graphic curiosities. There’s no commentary, the images speak for themselves. I see it as a rescue mission – preserving these neglected and overlooked images for new generations to discover.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Komet Weiss

Today’s image comes from 1930s Germany where the business of promoting Portland Cement was obviously taken very seriously. It’s a highly competent exercise in sachplakat employing clearly defined areas of flat colour to describe form in the manner made famous by Lucian Bernhard and Ludwig Hohlwein. The trick lies in precision drawing technique, skilled simplification of form and shape and an excellent eye for colour. The influence of William Nicholson and James Pryde helped to kick-start this reaction against the formal complexities of Art Nouveau but the robustly reductive approach was especially popular with German graphic designers and poster artists. As the style developed in the inter-war years it began to absorb some of the formal innovations of Cubism. The detail of the hands could almost be the work of Juan Gris.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Anarchy in the home

Two Victorian rosebuds placidly witness an outbreak of anarchy in the household. Our much respected brand character has escaped from the scullery, leaving grease and grime to accumulate untended, to amuse himself sliding down the well polished banisters in his master’s home. The atmosphere of orderly calm is rudely shattered by the intrusion of a primitive life form. The young witnesses maintain an impressive passivity in the face of this challenge to the integrity of the social fabric. Their eyes widen just a fraction and their perfectly formed lips barely part as they confront the dramatic spectacle. Even as his monocle goes flying our simian hero maintains a tight grip on his ever-present frying pan as if to remind himself of the call of duty and reassure us that this is not the opening move in a war of liberation in which his oppressors will be battered into submission with cooking utensils. As for the daughters of the household we can only hope that no lasting damage has been done to their future good health and marriage prospects.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 25, Napoli

An ill-assorted trio perform a public demonstration of pasta eating technique on the streets of Naples. Two barefoot street urchins and an adult male of cheerfully wayward disposition comprise the team of experts, posing on well worn flagstones in front of a somewhat improvised display of food preparation apparatus. An impressively diverse gallery of spectators muscle their way in from the left, the head of a feral child prominent among them. The presiding chefs lurk in the shadows while mellow afternoon sunlight slants across the scene. This is local colour at its most eccentric. It’s a carefree and animated scene presented for the delight of passing strangers but it also exemplifies the smile on the face of poverty that exists to ease the conscience of the economically privileged traveller.