Saturday, December 10, 2011

Canon and the International Organization of Postcard Image Pickers (IOPIP)

Photo left: "Weeding the Palms" 2011, volunteer gardeners on a Monday at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA 

In the United States during the 1950s, a popular means of vacationing was the road trip. My family lived in Northern California and we made the eight hour drive to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle who owned a candy factory in Palm Springs. Pop packed the trunk of our Chrysler New Yorker with suitcases and wedged a green Coleman cooler filled with sandwiches on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Between her feet, Mom balanced a tan metal thermos of steaming Hills Bros. coffee, which they drank from red plastic cups at the highway rest stops. Pop announced our seating positions – even though they always started out the same – and we were off on an adventure. The last stop before hitting the open road was the gas station where the attendant filled the tank, washed all the car windows, and waved goodbye as the sedan pulled away. We weren’t even out of town when my brother and I started singing television commercial jingles, the predecessor to calling out road signs, spotting convertibles, and collecting postcards from roadside attractions.
As in Italy, or probably anywhere except the Sahara desert, when you travel on land for eight hours the scenery changes. Southern California didn’t have big buildings in a financial district or cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge like San Francisco, but it had its own icons – gigantic palm trees. Some lined both sides of long country driveways and some stood at attention in large groups like a platoon of restless soldiers. Other palms clustered four or five together in an Oasis setting where their wide green fronds blew in the breeze as if shaking their hair dry from an early morning swim. There was something awe-inspiring about these trees. They were larger than life and as child, I wondered if they would grow to touch the heaven, their fronds overlapping into a cushioned carpet for the angels. In the barren Southern California landscape, the palm tree served as the icon of the bottom half of the state: its likeness was found in every postcard rack right next to the other So.CA iconic images of oil wells, grapefruit trees, bathing beauties on the coastal beaches, and odd roadside attractions like a life size cement dinosaur and the giant orange – a juice stand that no father could drive by without hearing shrieks of horror from the kids he thought were asleep in the back seat. The 1950s postcards had an unusual look as if the images were not real, not actual photos, but they were. They looked old and although clear in focus, they seemed muted or slightly distorted. Maybe this had something to do with the printing process, the paper stock, or maybe it was a design trend.

Before the postal rates rise in the United States in January, I submit my photo (volunteer gardeners on a Monday morning at the deYoung Museum) to the Postcard Makers Image Advisory Board in hopes to be placed in the annals of favorite postcard images under the category of looks-like-an-old-postcard. “Weeding the Palms,” has been selected from 385 entries to be in a juried show of 78 photographs called "Parallel" at the Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento. The show opens today, Saturday, December 10, 2011 and the photographs will be on display through Saturday, January 7, 2012. (see  2015 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95811-3124)

People remarking that the palm tree image (taken with my not-so-big-camera-with-a-really-long-zoom, Canon SX30IS) resembled an old time postcard started me thinking about postcard photo images and the postcard as it relates to the travelers experience, and, the Canon (camera) recording the canon (journal) of the trip, and the artistic canon (icons) of the city. It turns out there are so many varied definitions and applications of the word canon that I decided to create my own – the real deal – that’s it plain and simple; genuine and honest examples of greatness in any given field requiring an artistic endeavor.  

So, is there an International Organization of Postcard Image Pickers? Has some advisory board developed rules or a series of grading tips on how to pick the image that will appeal to the broadest audience? It seems that there is a universal similarity in the choices that reflect the heartbeat of cities around the world and that the knowledge of “the right image” is an unspoken canon (list of rules) in postcard land. For each city, there are six or seven mandatory shots. 1) a longshot that offers perspective of the placement of the city’s icon; 2) a closer look at the icon as a whole; 3) an isolated detail of a portion of the icon – all taken in best light, usually during the day; 4,5,6) the same or similar shots taken at night; 7) an optional shot taken from an unusual angle. The culmination is a composite postcard created using several city images with the name of the city on a banner.

In the Duomo at the English speaking Saturday Mass, the priest recites a canon from religious papers; in the Uffizi Museum the canon of artistic masterpieces graces the walls; and at the newsstands, the canon photos of Florence fill the racks with picture perfect images to send back home. Against a clear sky, the photos of the Duomo (the iconic church in Florence) looks like a sticker pasted onto blue construction paper, and at night against the darkness, the church takes on the role of giant theatrical prop… painted plywood, cut-out and staged in front of an indigo velvet backdrop. The crisp postcard images take on a “beyond reality” quality when applied to cardstock with a blank backside awaiting a stamp, an address, and a hand written note that most likely will be covered with postmarks rendering part of message illegible. But, yet, there is something undeniably sensual about holding a postcard. You often don’t know the name of the photographer and can only guess why he or she snapped the particular image, why the postcard company picked it from hundreds of options to print, why your special someone selected that specific card, and why you react with such joy when you see the image resting in your mail box, then magnetized to the frig, and finally pasted into a scrapbook or lost in the back of a drawer…  only to make you smile with delight when you find it years later while cleaning out the dresser.

Whatever credentials are required to hold the title of the official city postcard image picker, everyone who has ever taken a snapshot, at one time or another, has thought, “This would make a great postcard.” Be it blowing on Polaroids to make them dry quicker, sorting prints from rolls of film, seeing images appear on wet sheets of photo paper in the dark room, or the watching the slideshow on your computer – there is no denying the personal satisfaction of discovering that you alone have captured that one particular postcard-worthy moment in time. "Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still," said American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), a woman with many postcard-worthy images. Welcome to the world of postcards where images in real photos seem unreal, canon is a measure of excellence, and going to a museum on a Monday (the day it’s closed) resulted in a surprisingly charming photo of an unusual roadside attraction.

Pachelbel's Canon.

One night walking home from dinner in Monterossa, I heard a familiar tune echoing through the block long tunnel. The musician sat alone holding his accordion as it oozed the melody of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. You know the tune. It’s often played at weddings and memorials. The series of notes triggers the melody and you find yourself anticipating the refrain. Whether played with bells, a full orchestra, or just hummed in your head – there’s a reason it is called a canon – it captures in song a universal beauty, a memorable simple musical tune. I laid a pocket full of coins at the feet of this musician and then quietly snapped the photos, still walking so as not to interrupt the magic passing through his fingers. The photos are blurry, but think about the tune and you can actually see from his body language the sequence of notes he is playing. Here are some links to other street performers playing the “Pachelbel’s Canon” in Barcelona, Munich, Koln and San Francisco. Enjoy.

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