FOLK PHOTOGRAPHY: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930
by Luc Sante (paperback, 160 pages, 127 photos)

In rural America at the beginning of the twentieth century, the worldwide postcard craze coincided with the spread of light, cheap photographic equipment. The result was the real-photo postcard, so-called because the cards were printed in darkrooms rather than on litho presses, usually in editions of a hundred or fewer, the work of amateurs and professionals alike.

They were not intended for tourists, but as a medium of communication for the residents of small towns, isolated on the plains and in the hills. The cards document everything about their time and place, from intimate matters to events that qualified as news. They show people from every walk of life and the whole panorama of human activity: eating, sleeping, labor, worship, animal husbandry, amateur theatrics, barn-raising, spirit-rapping, dissolution, riot, disaster, death. Uncountable millions of them were made in the peak years, 1905 to 1912.

Previous books on the subject have been content to dwell on the nostalgia value of the images. This book takes a broader and deeper view. The 122 postcards it reproduces cover the vast range of subjects encompassed by the medium—sometimes lyrical and sometimes bracingly harsh—while Luc Sante’s pathbreaking introductory essay places them in their full historical and artistic context.

Sante argues that the cards were a medium of expression very much like the folk music being made in the same places at the same time—open to the complete and unvarnished experience of life, and enacting tradition even as they embody modernity. Besides that, he demonstrates that they represent a crucial stage in the evolution of photography, as the essential link between the plain style of the Civil War photographers and the vision of the great midcentury documentarians, Walker Evans above all.

Combining his gifts as a chronicler of early twentieth-century America, a historian of photography, and a clear-eyed and eloquent critic, Sante shows how the postcards’ “vast, teeming, borderless body of work” add up to a “self-portrait of the American nation.”


“Sante’s deep preoccupation is an outlaw history of Modernism in which avant-gardists and roustabouts sync up. With each new old thing his eye and phrasing fall on, Sante picks up a mystery to unfold, smooth out and trickily refold. He claims it, and hands it on.”—Frances Richard, The Nation

“At once tough in his thinking, empathic in his analysis, and liberated in expression, Sante selects barbed details, tunes in to danger and suspense, and dispenses wry humor and sure insight.—Booklist

“One of the handful of living masters of the American language, as well as a singular historian and philosopher of American experience.”—Peter Schjeldahl (art critic, The New Yorker)

Artforum's "500 Words" on Luc Sante, with a slideshow of images from Folk Photography

Interview with Luc Sante about Folk Photography on WFMU, 11/16/09

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includes an archive-quality print of one of Sante's favorite postcards (shown below), plus a specially written 4-page essay about the postcard, signed by the author. Both print and essay are numbered and limited to 75 copies. (ships via Priority Mail)

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