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At the MFA, a camera-ready country

‘Real Photo Postcards’ shows an early-20th-century America in fascinating flux

Unknown, "Photographer and Sitter with Dog," 1907Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

The title of “Real Photo Postcards: Pictures From a Changing Nation” raises an obvious question: Is there such a thing as unreal photo postcards?

The show runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 25.

In fact, a real photo postcard belongs to a specific category of postcard. It’s a print of an actual photograph that’s been printed onto photo-sensitive paper with a postcard backing. There you are: a photograph ready-made to be popped in the mail, assuming sufficient postage has been affixed.

Unknown, "Seen in Chinatown, San Jose, Cal."Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

“Real Photo Postcards” has been curated by the MFA’s Benjamin Weiss and Lynda Klich, who’s curator of the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive. The archive, which consists of more than 110,000 items, is a promised gift to the museum. The check may or may not be in the mail. The postcards definitely are. The show is the fourth the MFA has mounted that’s drawn from the archive.

Eastman Kodak developed the real photo process in 1903. Soon other companies began marketing their own versions. This new type of postcard allowed for all kinds of new possibilities in subject matter. Instead of a postcard just being the standard mass-produced image of, say, a popular tourist destination (“Wish you were here”) or famous site (“Guess who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb”), real photo postcards could accommodate much more specific subject matter: family occasions, civic gatherings, business promotions, even news events.


Unknown, "Long’s Place Lunch Car," about 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

The format’s invitation to granularity makes real photo postcards an invitation for social historians. Hence the show’s subtitle. Even more than pictures from a changing nation, these postcards display a changing nation. They range in date from 1907-33, and, oh, the places they show: Pratt, Kan.; Cuba, N.Y.; Wautoma, Wis.; Onawa, Iowa; Tarpon Springs, Fla.; Fort Lupton, Colo.; Liberal, Kan.; Shinglehouse, Pa.; Drumwright, Okla.; McMinnville, Ore.; Conconully, Wash.; Mentz, N.Y.; Saltair, Utah; Tishomingo, Okla.; Scio, Ore.; Harmony, Minn.; Wild Rose, Wis.; Bonaparte, Iowa. The captions in “Real Photo Postcards” can be as captivating as the images.


The show’s what is even better than its when and where. The images are variously goofy, charming, solemn, moving, puzzling, forthright, bizarre, deadpan, upright, offbeat, patriotic, startling, mundane, and, of course, frequently marvelous. What we see is at once profoundly other and as familiar as a look into the mirror. That famous first line of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” “The past is a foreign country”? “Real Photo Postcards” offers more than 300 passports to that country.

That’s a lot of images, even postcard sized, for the smallish Ritts and Brown galleries. Both spatially and conceptually, Weiss and Klich have responded imaginatively to such an inundation of abundance.

Unknown, "Telephone Operator," 1907 or later.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Frames contain anywhere from two to six postcards, with two behemoths holding 64 each. (We’ll get back to them.) Some frames hang on the walls. Others are on dividers angled out into the middle of each gallery. This arrangement wastes little space but without producing a sense of clutter. There are excellent explanatory texts, most of them about 3 feet above the floor. Expect to stoop. Also, even with this well-thought-out organization, expect to feel overwhelmed. Maybe the best way to experience the show is just to wander about at first, taking in the overall effect, until you find yourself captured by a particular image or set of images: a very early-model Harley-Davidson here, a Coca-Cola sign there, any of the three Teddy Roosevelt postcards — and what about those tornadoes they had in 1911 in Antler, N.D.?


T.W. Stewart, "Members of the Just Government League of Maryland," 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Weiss and Klich have organized the show thematically. The themes are clearly defined yet also usefully vague: “At Play, “At Work,” “In the Classroom,” “In the Country,” “Main Street,” “Mass Movements,” “On the Road,” “Religion,” “Trouble,” and so on. Think of them as chapters in a book (the show’s catalog is both extensive and cherishable). Inevitably, there’s some overlap, but a life without overlap isn’t much of a life.

Unknown, "The Lions, Scio, Oregon," 1907.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Two of the themes merit mention here. “In the Studio” includes a mock-up of a photography studio from a century ago. Museumgoers can pose for selfies. One of the props is an oversize paper moon. A selection of period recordings softly plays. One of them is, yes, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Another section is devoted to the Ku Klux Klan. This makes sad yet unavoidable sense. During the ‘20s, Klan membership reached unnerving numbers — and not just in the South. My Uncle Bill would tell me how he and his friends would go throw rocks at Klansmen rallying on Bear Hill, in Stoneham.

Unknown, "Teacher in the Classroom," about 1914.Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, Museum of Fine Arts

Part of the wonder of “Real Photo Postcards” is how it’s visual democracy in action, with so many different races, classes, occupations, activities, locations. Not to include the Klan would have been to violate the reality of that changing nation. It’s also an example of a nice bit of curatorial connectivity on Weiss and Klich’s part. Exit the Ritts Gallery, go up the stairs to the second floor of the Linde Family Wing, where “Philip Guston Now” is on exhibition, and you find some very different views of Klansmen.


That’s one bit of elegant curatorship. Another involves those two arrangements of 64 postcards. The postcards therein are portraits. Much artistry is to be found throughout the show. So many of the images are excellent examples of vernacular photography. Looking at those two large groupings, one is reminded of what may be the most famous example of the intersection of vernacular and art photography.

Walker Evans took “Penny Picture Display” in 1936. It shows a sign for a Savannah, Ga., photo studio. The sign consists of 225 thumbnail-size portraits: all these average Americans posing for the camera, unaware of the place in posterity that awaited them. “I look at it,” Evans said, “and think, and think, and think about all those people.” “Real Photo Postcards” inspires a similar response.

REAL PHOTO POSTCARDS: Pictures from a Changing Nation

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through July 25. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.