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Divine Presence in Spain and Western Europe 1500-1960

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William A. Christian

Chapter 3. Presence, Absence and the Supernatural in Postcard and Family Photographs, Europe 1895-19201

Texte intégral

  • 1 The following assisted me with translations of texts, sources or information on given images: Igor (...)
  • 2 Alberti, On Painting, 60. I am indebted to Nathaniel Jones for this reference.

“Painting possesses a truly divine power in that
not only does it make the absent present
(as they say of friendship), but it also represents
the dead to the living many centuries later, so
they are recognized by spectators with pleasure
and deep admiration for the artist.”
Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, 14352

1Illustrating the two previous chapters about visits by pilgrim strangers and images that seemed to come alive were statues, paintings, engravings, and photographs. This chapter deals with the passage of art to photography in the representation of visions. Its brief text is a guide to what is essentially a visual argument for the transposition of medieval and early modern representations of the relations between humans and the divine to the art of photography, and the profound change in the nature of the self that photography facilitated. The chapter is arranged in pools of images connected by introductions.

  • 3 Mora i Puyal, “El racó de la memòria,” cited by permission.
  • 4 Lazare Boix, “Colecciones: reflexiones antropológicas,” cited by permission
  • 5 Kron, Home-Psych, 194, in Brucato, “Il valore antropologico delle cose,” 5, cited by permission.

2When preparing these essays, I participated in a seminar on collecting. The fundamental act in collecting, it was pointed out, is the decision to include and exclude—the assignment of value to some things and not to others,3 thereby establishing a kind of membrane between things rejected and things accorded added value and special status,4 One participant cited Joan Kron: “By being part of a collection each piece is transformed from its original function of toy, icon, bowl, picture, whatever, into an object with new meaning—a member of an assemblage that is greater than the sum of its parts.”5

3All of these essays involved choices of inclusion and exclusion, but the procedures differed. The first chapter grew organically and somewhat surprisingly from the story of Toribia del Val. An examination of the immediate context and antecedents and successors found the notion of the mysterious wayfarer to be like an unusual kind of mushroom. Fed by the rains of catechism, the sunshine of iconography, and seasonal showers of pilgrims, it occasionally emerged in visions or the stories of visions of angels or Christ.

4The second is based on documented episodes of activation I had collected over four decades. Here inclusion was relatively simple: those instances of liquids on images which had a public impact, with reflections on why they had impact, and how they changed over time. The mushroom in question was less rare and easier to find, and, apparently for systematic reasons, widely consumed in certain places and periods.

5Whereas the first two chapters involved collecting everything or the more salient items in a class, for this last one, given a field of millions of postcards and photographic images between 1895 and 1920, there was no way to establish a population or even a taxonomy. Out of the seemingly limitless abundance of images available in shops, flea markets, and then online, certain ones attracted me more than others, this one yes, those no—an experience common to all shoppers. The reasons, while undeniably instinctual and aesthetic, also seemed to be thematic in a manner of which I was only partly unaware, aside from the general idea of depiction of the invisible. Over time, ideas and analogies became clearer and the choices more compelling, leading to “an assemblage that seemed to be greater than the sum of its parts.” The result is a path of meaning necessarily personal, one way of regarding the impact of the great revolution of photography on visions, self–awareness, and vision itself.

6For photography (and subsequently moving pictures) shouldered its way into the discernment process for visions, with pictures and films cited as evidence for and against the activation of statues. As photography took hold on the imagination and became an anchor for visual memory, its conventions and its iconography in turn affected what people experienced.

7For any period in history we cannot fully understand what happened in visions without knowing the visual “field,” the common repertory, of “invisibles.” The years from 1895 to 1920, because of the fad for picture postcards, comprise a special period for the consolidation of a visible field that now is exceptionally accessible.

  • 6 The postcard originated in Austria in 1869 and had spread through the Western world by 1874. Illus (...)
  • 7 These figures are climbing rapidly, representing an increase of 30 % for Delcampe, and 10 % for To (...)

8Fanning out from Berlin and Vienna, photo, photo/art, and art postcards spread a craze of images from great cities to remote villages. Millions of cards circulated, many of them in numbered sets, and many consumers sent each other, one by one, complete sets, commenting in their messages on their favorites.6 My grandfather’s cousin, a single man in New York City, sent his niece, a child in Lynchburg, Virginia, a post– card every day in the years around 1900. It was an affordable and democratic craze, in which masters and servants separately participated, gathering the cards in albums and boxes. The numbers are staggering. Collections and collectors continue a century later with stores, fairs, and websites to supply them. For Western Europe the most important website is currently Delcampe.com, based in Belgium, which had at the time of this writing over 27,000,000 postcards on offer, roughly half of them from the first three decades of the twentieth century. An equivalent Spanish site, TodoColección, offers 1,150,000 postcards.7 These websites also offer personal and family photographs, many from the same period made on postcard stock so they could be mailed.

9Immense searchable archives such as these provide a window on the imagination of the early twentieth century, particularly as expressed through the lens of the camera. Through them one can get to see how some of the invisible members of Western European society were made visible.

Notes

1 The following assisted me with translations of texts, sources or information on given images: Igor Bogdanovic, Marrie Bot, Adrienne Dömötör, Michel Frizot, Helmfried Luers and Maria Vivod. Unless otherwise specified, all postcards and photographs form part of the collection of the author. The following website of Helmfried Luers is useful for identification of German and Austrian postcard logos and initials: The Postcard Album; Postcard Printer and Publisher Research http://tpa-project.info/body_index.html. This chapter is both an idea and a collection that illustrates it. My interest in postcards as combinations of pictures and messages was long ago stimulated by the film by Lynne Cohen and Andrew Lugg, Front and Back.

2 Alberti, On Painting, 60. I am indebted to Nathaniel Jones for this reference.

3 Mora i Puyal, “El racó de la memòria,” cited by permission.

4 Lazare Boix, “Colecciones: reflexiones antropológicas,” cited by permission

5 Kron, Home-Psych, 194, in Brucato, “Il valore antropologico delle cose,” 5, cited by permission.

6 The postcard originated in Austria in 1869 and had spread through the Western world by 1874. Illustrated cards were commercialized in Germany starting in 1875 and in France, starting in 1887, intensified by the World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 in Paris and 1893 in Chicago. Estimates for French production for the year 1907 range from 300 to 600 million cards. For an overview, Ripert and Frère, La carte postale, 11–40. While print runs for individual cards in France might have averaged 10,000 before the war, it was not unusual during the war for them to be 100,000 (Huss, Histoires, 72). See also Baranowska, “The Mass-Produced Postcard,” and Phillips, We Are the People.

7 These figures are climbing rapidly, representing an increase of 30 % for Delcampe, and 10 % for TodoColeccion in the past six months.

© Central European University Press, 2012

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