This is James Brouwer.
He lives in British Columbia, Canada.
He’s a collector…
Vintage picture frames.
“All sorts of visual imagery and ephemera….”
He also collects postcards.
They’re in these boxes.
“And I’m sort of obsessive about this in my collecting.
I like that sort of visual arrangement of sameness,
repeating itself in different contexts.
It could be anything from a figure standing in front of a mountain
and you see another one with a figure standing on a mountain
and a figure standing in front of a field.
And pretty soon you start collecting onlooker postcards.”
The onlookers are cool.
But this story isn’t about them.
It’s about a type of image
James didn’t even realize he was collecting at first.
“I think when I got home and started more and more going through my collection
and putting images together that I’m like…
you just see it.”
It’s the same sky.
In Alberta, Canada.
And Juarez, Mexico.
“I think what grabs in my mind is
that part of the cloud at the very far end
looks like a little mouth of a creature.”
It’s something your brain grabs on to.”
Once you see it, the images suddenly take on
a sort of, uncanny quality.
So why would someone go through all the trouble
to make these places look the same?
This story started back in January.
When Estelle, she produces Vox Earworm
and has made some of your favorite Vox videos,
sent me a link on Slack.
“Anyway, if you ever want to do a darkroom
on postcards… this one is cool,
it’s the same stock sky on every postcard.”
It brought me to this Flickr page.
And I sent a message asking about the same sky postcards.
嗨 你好 我很乐意探讨
I met James over Zoom.
“I have them grouped with that little bit of cloud
facing the other direction.
Sometimes they shift it a little bit
so that distinctive cloud formation is sometimes
a bit off to the left or a bit off to the right.
Sometimes it hugs the top of the frame
sometimes it’s more in the middle of the frame.”
There’s actually a couple of sky photos that
get repeated with slight position shifts in James’s collection.
And it’s pretty clear that these skies were not part of the original photos.
There’s the one James says looks like a sea creature.
And one with a cloud that sort of reminds me of the shape of Cuba. Sort of.
Anyway, once I started looking for those skies
I came across them pretty easily on eBay
and in antique stores in Brooklyn.
I began building my own small collection of same-skies.
But I wanted to go see James’s original collection.
So it was at this point that I got on a plane to
beautiful British Columbia.
“So yeah, I just started scanning them, cropping them
and putting them up on Flickr.
And now I think there’s about eleven thousand of them uploaded.”
“So there’s advertising, old age homes, windows, wax museums.
“有关于广告 养老院 窗户 蜡像馆的
There’s some really strange wax museums
that are nicely preserved in postcards
and probably nowhere else.”
The bulk of James’s collection are what’s known as “chrome-era postcards”.
“So a chrome card denotes some particular period of postcard production,
postwar, from the late 40s through to the present,
essentially, with glossy color photographs.
And it takes its name from Kodachrome.”
Kodachrome was the first commercially viable full color film,
introduced by Kodak in 1935.
These types of postcards, taken with the new color film,
circulated widely in North America
in the 1940s through the 1970s.
With branding on the back like:
“Plastichrome, Lusterchrome, things like that.
Always with that word “chrome.”
To denote the shine and the gloss that you see
on these postcards and the punchy color.”
By the time James started collecting in the 1980s,
the glossy, mid-century chrome cards
were just piled up in flea markets, largely overlooked.
“The postwar cards were considered more junky.
It was something easy to collect for the cheap.
And I’m like, sure I’ll grab that.
Looks cool, looks cool, looks cool.
And pretty soon I’d amassed a lot of it.
And I don’t think I ever noticed at the time that
I was grabbing the cards that had”
the exact same sky repeated in different contexts.”
There’s a few things we know about the same-sky postcards.
Namely, that they all came from the same place.
“It appears that these same sky postcards are
all from one publishing company: Dexter Press.”
Dexter Press was one of the largest postcard manufacturers
in the world during the chrome era.
And looking into their history
provides a clue about the same sky postcards.
It was founded by this guy, Thomas A. Dexter,
in Pearl River, New York.
And, according to the back of this postcard
from National Post Card Week ‘86,
Dexter was printing 4 million cards
a day at their peak,
and pioneered the so-called
“Natural Color” printing process.
“Natural Color” referred to a mechanical process
of printing postcards from color photographs.
“So it might be that this particular publishing company
had some reason to do it.
It might be that it had a lot of visual punch this white and the blue.
Maybe they thought that’d enlivened the image.”
Or it might have something to do with the company’s other innovation.
Dexter patented a process called “gang printing,”
which upped their printing capacity
and enabled them to take on print orders for smaller postcard publishers.
“Maybe they thought it was some strange way of
marking Dexter Press’s visual territory.
Like a little signature of sorts that no one would notice.”
And I’m going to be honest,
that’s the explanation I was hoping we’d end up with.
That this was…
…a sort of little trademark that
Dexter would slide in to make it a Dexter image.
Do you think that’s a possibility?
After talking to James, I called Bill Burton.
He’s the publisher of the online magazine Postcard History,
and I sent over two same-sky postcards
to ask him what he thinks.
And his explanation made a lot of sense.
“Dexter was the go-to guy
to print chrome postcards.
He had very large presses,
and he could print them at very high speeds.
He had a big art department.
He would offer to photo-correct any problems in the image.”
So if the sky for whatever reason didn’t look the way a customer wanted it to…
“The artist would cut out a mask
that would just go right up the telephone pole
and across it and down and along the roofline or whatever it was.
Then you would put the sky behind it
and you’d match the two of them up.
These two cards have the same image in the sky
because they had stock images of skies.
And most people wouldn’t have known the difference.
I mean, who goes to a store, buys three postcards
and then grabs a magnifying glass and looks at what they got?
Well there is one person.
“And I still collect them and I still love them
and I still am a champion of the chrome-era postcard.”
Dexter Press is long gone.
And there’s really no way to know for sure why they replaced some skies
and seemingly left others untouched.
But they probably never anticipated that somebody,
someday, would put them all together.
“To me, it’s not so much the grand mystery
of why they did it
because I think visually it creates
something really remarkable.
These cards that are meant to denote a particular place…”
Like Grand Teton, Wyoming.
Or McLeod’s Lake, British Columbia.
“…When taken en masse,
the differences get washed away.
And so you get this sort of typology or type
that floats above the particulars beneath.”
And these images, which are often pretty bland on their own,
transform into something new.
“And it’s very obvious with the same sky pictures,
You’ve got something arbitrary,
like an amalgamation of clouds,
they start repeating and gaining a strange significance
just by virtue of being repeated.
It makes the card not just what it is.
It becomes something else.”
James mentioned a couple of figures from the art world
that inspired the look of his collection.
Including pop artist Andy Warhol.
Whose wall of Campbell’s soup cans
and colorful portraits of thee rich and famous,
you might recognize.
And two conceptual artists I didn’t know about,
but I’m glad I do now:
Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Who photographed industrial architecture in Western Europe starting in the 1950s.
Their whole thing was about form and sequencing too.
“And the beautiful way they were arranged
so that the type of imagery would repeat
with small differences in between,
and just the visual impact of that is incredible.
So I sort of wanted to reproduce that.”
There’s a link to James’s full collection online
in the description of this video.
Plus a couple of links that I found helpful
if you want to do some postcard research of your own.
Thanks for watching
This is James Brouwer.