Episode 124: Postcards in Black-and-White

Every once in a while you say something as a side comment and that blows up.


Like, for instance, when you’re talking to Magda about the commercial potential of color versus black-and-white postcards. And somehow, by saying color postcards outsell black-and-white postcards, you’re suddenly cast as the president of the Black-and-White Postcard Hater’s Club — someone who doesn’t appreciate Henri Cartier-Bresson. Or Pedro Luis Raota. Or Dorthea Lange. Hell, one person told me to look up Ansel Adams.

But it’s not that black and white. Nothing really is.

What I talked about with Madga is the commercial advantage of color versus black and white. And lest you think I was just talking off the top of my head, maybe a little background would be beneficial.
You might know I spent a large part of my career in the communication business. That is, using communication to drive messaging. And that’s not only using words. It’s timing. Visual impact. Priming. And audience preference.

All of which affected my choice of words when I mentioned to Magda that black-and-white postcards won’t sell as well as color postcards. There. I said it.

Now, before you turn off this show or are tempted to dash off a dismissive email, let me explain. Saying color sells more than black-and-white doesn’t mean I don’t like black-and-white postcards. In fact, I have tens of thousands of them — many from wartime. And real picture postcards. I have lots of those, too. Plus, I have some really great black-and-white postcards from OG that I have in frames on my office wall. Dave Wolanski has created many really nice cards from his black-and-white photographs. So has Moni Smith with her pinhole photos. Nan works in black-and-white. And so does Magda. I love all that work. And I love the postcards made from those photographs. Let’s start there. Then let’s do a little science here about why I said color postcards sell more than black-and-white.

Here’s the part on The Postcardist Podcast where we do the guided meditation. Oh, you missed those episodes? Well, don’t think about that now. It’s time to think about color versus black-and-white postcards.

Let’s all close our eyes for a minute. Are your eyes closed?

Now imagine you’re walking into a shop that sells postcards. Maybe it’s a a bookstore — like Stand in New York City. Or El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. Or Scarthin’s Books in the Peak District. Or Powell’s in Portland. Or Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Or if it’s not a bookstore in your imagination, think about traveling. Think about postcard spinner racks in tourist areas. (Hey, are your eyes still closed?)

Think about a passeggiata near the Duomo di Milano. Or ambling along Arbat Street in Moscow. Or imagine a late-night walk along the Cotai Strip in Macau. Think about slow walks along the canals of Amsterdam; think about standing in front of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; think about queueing up to listen to Big Ben toll its bells on the hour. Heck, think about standing in a gift shop at Disney. Or think about wandering around the aisles of a gas station on the turnpikes of the U.S. When you see postcards in your imagination, what do you see?

Hey, are your eyes still closed? This is guided postcard meditation.

What do you see when you see postcards? Are they predominantly color postcards? Or are they black and white? Seriously, what do you see? (And don’t say “I see dead people.” That was from one of the creepiest movies ever. And that would be a totally different show.)

I see color postcards. Racks and racks and racks of color postcards. When I look at the 5,000 or so blank postcards surrounding my writing desk, I see color postcards. When I stop in gas stations on the turnpike, I see color postcards. When I go to tourist places, I see color postcards. And when I set off on my world tour of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, I’ll see color postcards.

There’s a reason for it.

Remember when I mentioned those elements of communication? Timing. Visual impact. Priming. Audience preference? Each of those have a reason why we naturally gravitate toward color versus black and white. Much of this is hard wired into our DNA.

Research shows that a black and white image holds interest for less than two-thirds of a second, whereas a colored image holds interest two or three times that long. We’re visual beings. We have to be. And that goes back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who had to process a visual landscape. Color made distinctions. Color indicated safe versus scary. In a study titled How Color Enhances Visual Memory for Natural Scenes, researchers from the American Psychological Association discovered that we make instant decisions about color and black-and-white and remember color scenes more. Back in the Cro-Magnon Era, that recollection was the difference. between life and death. It’s not quite that dire now, but the wiring is there inside us.

Remember what I said about visiting tourist locations? Or fabulous bookstores? It’s color postcards I remember. It’s genetically encoded in me to do that. Color is more stimulating for our brains — and our brains crave stimulation. Color is more memorable — and my caveman ancestors used that to their great advantage. (Do you ever think about how your ancestors were the fastest and smartest and most adaptable ones out there? They were, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.)

So, there’s science behind what I said about color and color postcards. There’s also a few other items I brought up earlier. I talked about visual impact. That’s what color gives us in terms of instant recognition. I also used the term “priming.”

Priming is a communication theory, whereby we are more likely to take in new messages when our brains have been prepared in advance. It’s why I said the word “priming” early on. In cognitive psychology, we know human minds make decisions based on the preconceptions that are already been stored in our memory. I said the word priming. And now I’m saying it again. The priming concept goes for color postcards as well.Here’s a little postcard history — and why we’re primed to buy more color postcards than black-and-white.

In the United States in 1939, Union Oil Company began selling what’s known as photocrome-style postcards in their service stations. Those were color postcards that mostly look like photographs — and they are the predominant way we think about postcards in the modern era. To use the psychological term, we were “primed” to see color postcards as normal. But those weren’t the first color postcards by a long shot.

In the 1880s, many postcards were printed with small sketches or designs (called vignettes) on the message side, initially just in black, but increasingly also in color. Slowly, Germany came to dominate the industry of chromolithography, with many postcards being printed there. A large number of these featured illustrated views of a town and the expression Gruss Aus (or, Greetings from), leaving enough space for a message.

At the end of the decade, the Eiffel Tower made its debut on the Paris Exposition of 1889. French engraver Charles Libonis designed postcards for the occasion featuring the monument. The novelty postcards, which could be mailed from the Eiffel Tower itself, were much beloved by the visitors and became known as Libonis. Those had color illustrations.

In 1908, Curt Teich Co. introduced postcards to their portfolio, and over the next few decades became the world’s largest printer of view and advertising postcards.

Teich was an early pioneer of the offset printing process, and the first to understand the advantages of using lightly embossed paper to speed up the drying of ink, allowing the finished product to retain brighter colors. Because of their texture resembling linen, these embossed postcards became known as linen cards.

Again, color postcards (and even though many black-and-white real photo postcards were produced using the Kodak No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera, which was introduced in 1903 and allowed photographers to create a postcard from any photo they took starting in 1907) dominated the Golden Age of Postcards from 1900 to 1915. If you’re a collector, you know that many from that era were illustrated and produced in Germany using brightly colored inks.

Let’s fast forward to modern day. Like how about today — January 12, 2022. I just went to Lantern Press dot com — one of the biggest and most recognized publishers of high quality postcards in the United States. The have 13 black and white postcards listed. Thirteen. They offer 1,882 postcards in their Photography section alone — and thousands upon thousands more in other sections like Nautical Charts, Everyday Art, and Lighthouses (to name a few). Thirteen total black-and-white postcards, which is seven-tenths of a percent of just their photography art offerings. And on Etsy, I got 25,128 results when I typed in black-and-white postcard; that’s out of 370,838 results when I just searched the word “postcard.” That adds up to 7 percent of the Etsy postcard offerings being black-and-white.

Now, you understand that when I’m giving these numbers it’s not that I’m celebrating the dearth of black-and-white postcards versus color. There’s a big difference between market desirability and personal appreciation for a card (or cards). I spent a while going back through cards I’ve gotten. And I have much appreciated the artistic quality of black-and-white postcards. I told you, I have framed several of them.

As the American photographer Joel Sternfeld said, “Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.” And how very strange all of this is. The original assertion that started all this was one of marketing and commercial viability: will color postcards sell more than black-and-white postcards? Unequivocally, the answer is yes.

Then again, I don’t want this to turn into the postcard world version of an East Coast – West Coast Hip Hop Rivalry. No need to lay down any diss tracks over postcard choices. Let’s celebrate them.
Postcards connect people. And that’s at the heart of all this. I hope you keep connecting with people, no matter what color palette you choose. Even one in black and white.

Just a side note: if anyone has any original Ansel Adams postcards they wanna part with, as Tupac said, Hit ‘Em Up.

Thanks for listening.

One of my favorite black-and-white postcards

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