Val Williams / On curating Postcards from Robert’s for PhotoHastings 2014
Val Williams is a writer and curator. She is Professor of the History and Culture of Photography at the University of the Arts and Director of the UAL Photography and the Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication, and her recent publications include Martin Parr (Phaidon, 2014) and Sune Jonsson: Life and Work (MaxStrom, 2014). Christiane Monarchi conducted the following online interview with Williams ahead of the opening of Postcards from Robert’s, the most recent exhibition she has curated in association with PhotoHastings 2014.
Christiane Monarchi: You’ve curated the upcoming Postcards from Robert’s exhibition, part of the new PhotoHastings festival – which I understand is the second exhibition drawn from the vast collection of objects at Robert’s Rummage in Hastings Old Town. For those not familiar with Robert’s, how would you describe it?
Val Williams: Robert’s Rummage is owned and run by Robert Mucci, and is an institution in Hastings Old Town. The shop, though small, sells almost everything, from plates to door handles. Quite a lot of vintage souvenirs from the 50s and 60s come through the shop, and there are large collections of postcards, photographs and ephemera. Everything is very inexpensive. It is a very beautiful small shop, and though it has been open for only 20 years, looks like a 19th century emporium. As well as being a resource for things, Robert’s is a retreat for people. When I am writing at home, I make repeated visits to Robert’s to gather my thoughts, have a chat and look for inspiration.
Robin Christian’s new 10 minute film is an interview with Robert and a tour around the shop. It will be on the PARC website, soon, and is being premiered at the Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings on 12 October.
CM: How did you become drawn to the collections of postcards – I understand this exhibition includes 400 that you have culled from thousands – and how have you decided to display them?
VW: Robert’s always has at least 10 boxes of postcards, numbering thousands of individual cards. I wanted to make a new piece of work in my From Robert’s series ( the first one was Pictures from Robert’s) and I felt that the postcards were an undervalued resource. I made a list of subjects and went through all the postcards looking for cards that fitted into the following categories:
– People on their own in the landscape
– Couples wandering around
– Groups of people enjoying themselves
– The centre of the village
– The road through the mountains
– Compositions framed by vegetation
– The Bay
– Large buildings in city centres
– The road next to the sea
Some of the cards will be displayed as originals, and a section have been scanned and enlarged. The original photographs used for the cards were taken by professional photographers using very high quality equipment, and although our enlargements are taken from print and can’t match the quality of the negative that was originally made, the enlargements produce other qualities which are interesting.
I have always thought that the photo postcards isn’t taken seriously as photography; rather, it’s seen as endearing popular culture, and I wanted to redress this. I also liked the fact that they idealised the countryside, the landscape and the idea of leisure, which of course was quite new for many people in the 50s and 60s.
CM: In the context of a photographic festival, the display of these postcards includes a look back at local colour as well as an exploration of British vernacular imagery. Are there types, or tropes, that emerge?
VW: This is what interested me the most- the way that the landscape and the way that people move within it became a focus for the new tourism both in UK and abroad. Cities only really appear as the background to monuments, cathedrals, fountains and the like, though I have managed to find one or two cards that show large modern buildings. Because I restricted myself to cards on sale at Robert’s, I found that there were often large collections of cards that passed between individual families and their friends- this is a narrative of it’s own which I haven’t explored this time, but might at some time in the future. The tropes that I found are particularly around landscape and the monumental, as listed above. There were many other subsections that I could have made, but these were the ones that particularly interested me, and which were available in large enough numbers to be able to make small collections from and select the ones I liked most.
I also liked the cards because they have no value, and are of no interest to collectors. 400 cards cost £25.
CM: What kind of reactions have you seen in people viewing these images?
VW: People are particularly interested in the enlargements, because though they would probably pass by a set of small cards, they will really look at large prints, which begin to assume a power and status completely lacking in the original cards. They haven’t gone on show yet, so we don’t yet have an audience reaction, but people who have seen them here are very engaged by them. They seem to strike a chord of memory as we have all sent or received.
Postcards from Robert’s will be exhibited as part of PhotoHastings from 15th-21st October, 2014. More details on this and other exhibitions and events can be found on www.photohastings.org