SAP Archive: Social Life of a Souvenir (Photograph)

South Asian Photo Archive is a section dedicated to the explore of photographs as objects. In addition to looking at photographs as objects this section examines the idea of the archive. In looking at these idea’s theories from art history, anthropology and cultural studies are used. Each post will explore these topics from a different point of view in order to get a broad picture of the photograph as an object.

Photography as a Souvenir

I am making my way through the book Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images edited by Elizabeth Edwards. As I work my way through the book I am applying the methodologies of the individual essays to a photograph of my own. This week, I am using the theories used by Joan M. Schwartz in her essay “Un Beau Souvenir Du Canada”. This document explores the photographic object as a souvenir and suggests that photographs have a social life. In this post, I will explore the photographic postcard (see above), as a souvenir with its own social life. To do this I will first give a description of the postcard, then discuss its value and function as a souvenir and lastly discuss its social life.

The images above show both sides of a photographic postcard. The postcard itself is 7 inches long by 3 ½ inches tall. The photograph on the front which depicts the Taj Mahal in Agra takes up most the left two-thirds of the card. However, there is a white border around the photograph of about a quarter of an inch. The right side of the photograph shows a graphic of an angel and three star bursts with the statement ‘Peace on Earth’. The star bursts are blue and the angels rob is highlighted in red. The photograph is in color with a blue cast.

The back of the postcard is perhaps more interesting than the front. While the front of the postcard gives the viewer the feeling of the holidays juxtaposed with Indian architecture, the back gives insight into the life of the sender and the receiver. The back of the postcard which is positioned vertically instead of horizontally like the front. At the top of the card there is a red stamp from Kodak. Across the top of the stamp it reads Kodacolor Print. This phrase make the top edge of a rectangle. In the bottom, left corner of the stamp it looks like a page is being turned which creates the right side and part of the bottom of the rectangle. In the center the stamp reads Made by in cursive style writing, while inside the graphic of a page being turned it says Kodak. To complete the bottom line of the rectangle 1963R is printed. Below the stamp the sender of the card has written her text. It reads:

  • The Taj Mahal was begun in in 1631 and finished in 1648. It was built as a memorial to his wife by the emperor Shahjahan. It is located at Agra, only 54 miles from Aligarh where I live.

    What became of your bid for Foreign Service, Nathaniel? They tell me technicians are a drain on the market in Washington now.

    Greetings and best wishes

    Coming from Aligarh, India and Gainesville, Florida

    Dorothy & Aubrey Duns…ly

This text lets us know the writer was a woman, most probably Dorothy and the recipient was a man named Nathaniel. Furthermore, there are no marks on the card indicating it was sent through the mail, so it was probably slipped in an envelope and mailed in this manner.

Like myself, I am sure many people think about souvenirs when they think about traveling somewhere. Most people want to bring an object home with them that reminds them of their journey. In contemporary times, photographs have become just as important if not more important that the other objects we purchase and return home with. As Schwartz states in her essay, a “souvenir [is] a reminder of personal experience or commemorative keepsake” (16). A postcard is inherently a souvenir, sometimes the purchaser keeps the card as a personal keepsake and sometimes postcards are purchased with the purpose of sharing your life’s journey with another. The postcard is a reminder of a personal experience for the writer of the card, however, these memories is being transferred in a hollow shell to the recipient. Without fanfare, the writer told a brief history of the Taj Mahal, then moving on to question the recipient about potential work. This is much in the style of how I write postcards, giving a little and asking a little.

The difference between the postcard being a part of the collective memory versus a personal one is what shapes the objects social life. As Susan Steward has suggested, the souvenir is “by definition always incomplete; the object s metonymic (the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjective for that of the thing meant) to the scene of this original appropriation and it must be supplemented by a narrative ‘that both attaches it to its origins and creates a myth with regard to those origins’” (25; Stewart, On Longing, 138). In this regard, the postcard must be accompanied by the historical information about the Taj Mahal for it to be of any significance to its recipient. Furthermore, the postcard presents many questions such as, why was a photograph printed on a page with an angle and the phrase ‘Peace on Earth’? This places an Islamic structure on a card with something symbolic of Christianity, thus giving the object a bit of colonial flare.

Over time the reasons for putting the photograph of the Taj Mahal on a postcard with the graphic angle and phrase ‘Peace on Earth’ has been lost. Speculation is all that remains. When I came across this postcard on Ebay I was struck by this strange juxtaposition, so I purchased the card. Once I had received the card I read the writing on the back and was further intrigued by its origins. We know that either Dorothy or Aubrey purchased or had this postcard produced and that one or both of these women lived in India. We also know that the note on the back was addressed to Nathaniel and that he had been interested in working in the Foreign Service. Thus, an interest in Islamic architecture or an historic site seems an appropriate exchange. We have no way of knowing if the postcard was displayed or shown to others or just stored away. Eventually it was put for sale on Ebay and I purchased it. For a time I had the postcard framed and hung on my apartment wall. Now it is stored in a large manila envelope. Through this blog post, I am inserting it into a new position within the history of photography. In this way the story of the postcard continues. We seem to think that possessions do not have a history or a life, that they are static. I think we often read photographs as static as well. In many ways they are as they capture a fraction of a second and hold it in time. However, the meaning behind the photograph of the insight into it can change over time. We just need to be open to the changing meanings to bring them in focus.

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Photography/History Vocabulary: Elements of Design
Photography/History Vocabulary: Definition of Frame
Photography/History Vocabulary: Principles of Design
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By |2018-10-11T13:50:35-05:00April 14th, 2017|List, SAP Archive|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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