Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards trilogy sits attractively on my bookshelves, each spine a pleasingly constant height and width, each book toning nicely with its neighbour. Neatly decked out in plain, matt covers, Boring Postcards (grey), Boring Postcards (beige) and Langweilige Postkarten (green) make a handsome collect-the-set for the aesthetically adventurous, those of us who appreciate Parr’s richly ironic presentation.
But who are we, the aficionados of this publishing phenomenon? Are we sharing Parr’s adventurous eye, surfing on the ironic title and conveying the catholicism of our architectural appreciation through our ownership of BPs 1, 2 and 3? Or are we sneerers, turning each thick page with a smirk of superiority, happy to have escaped the relentless landscapes contained within?
Perhaps both answers are right. The original Boring Postcards is loosely divided into four categories – transport, civic pride, recreation and industry. Captioning is minimal – with only the postcard’s own identifying label overlaid on the image or text set out below – and no additional words of explanation, context or date. There is also no indication whether the postcards – which all come from Parr’s private collection – have ever been sent. Occasionally, a biro arrow can be seen, marking out a holiday caravan, for example, or there is the faded remnant of a postmark. The messages have been lost. Unlike Tom Phillip’s magnum opus, The Postcard Century (see things 13, page 116), which successfully wove the personal stories contained on the cards with the historical context of the era and the telling indicator of their subject matter, Boring Postcards sets out, quite deliberately, to exist in a vacuum, one in which all sense of narrative is subsumed to the aesthetic.
As detailed historical records of the desires and expectations of post-war Britain these pictures leave the historian with much to be desired – the absence of dates is especially unforgivable. The knowing irony of the title is telling – this is clearly not a ‘boring’ book. But in truth, these images hold little interest when not considered as a whole. It’s not hard to appreciate why Parr collects these postcards; they are both attractive and evocative. To take one example at random – the image of Walney Island’s South End Caravan Park. About twenty caravans sit scattered on a hazy band of green field, which merges with the sea in the distance and the foreground. Of course, the aesthetic – Howard Hodgkin-meets-Hi-de-Hi – is entirely accidental, thanks to cheap repro, cheap stock and cheap storage, yet it is all the better for that.
Parr’s published photo essays are frequently accompanied by essays – authors who have collaborated with the photographer include Simon Winchester and Ian Walker. The absence of an editorial voice in the Postcards series leaves some doubt as to what is being celebrated here, if indeed celebration is Parr’s game. Other collections of photographs – the British on holiday, in their homes, in their cars – have been remarkable for their explicit candour, an explicitness that some have interpreted as condescension.
I don’t think there’s anything explicitly condescending about Boring Postcards. That said, it’s not hard to see how easily the collective impact – or non–impact – of these images can be used to confirm just about any theory about post–war, pre-Thatcherite Britain. Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’, while it may have evoked a romanticism more reminiscent of Joseph Wright of Derby than of contemporary science and industry, is nonetheless crystallised within these pages. The easy confidence of a contented nation shines through, whether it’s in the grand civic project – Birmingham’s Bull Ring and Queensway, here looking radiantly Niemeyer-esque – or the bold interior scenes (Dovedale’s Izaak Walton Hotel, for example, all rich red carpet and clear attempts at a co-ordinating scheme). Here is New Britain, before the cynics and nay-sayers managed to combine highbrow aesthetic appreciation with a dismissive, ironic sneer, making reasoned judgements impossible.
And look what we missed. It’s remarkable to see how much good architecture there was during the (unspecified) period covered by the first book. To the follower of architecture, conditioned by developers, planners, princes and timorous civic authorities into accepting a toytown aesthetic of such blanket sterility that any deviation from the norm – however banal – is cause for celebration, it comes as quite a shock to see that Britain could build. The freshly fashionable post-wallpaper* acceptance of international modernism as an enduring aesthetic style, and not a flimsy temporary aberration, might never have been necessary. As it was, Britain didn’t have the political stomach to persevere with a style that was forever blighted by association – in this case with the tower block, the hated and most visible expression of local authority architectural dabbling. Residential towers are relatively conspicuous by their absence in Boring Postcards, making the book all the more remarkable for recording many minor treasures of low-lying , ambitious local authority building, the majority of which no doubt subsequently succumbed to ham-fisted alterations, asbestos scares and whole-scale demolition.
Ironically, it’s the holidays section that holds the least allure. Stripped of their backstory, the human lives that filled the countless caravans and chalets in the images, the blank rows are rather sad and meaningless, the endless repetition containing none of the character of even the most minor public building or sweeping overpass. It’s not inconceivable that Parr sees these largely empty vacation vistas act as a flip side to his ketchup-bottle bright images of the nation at play. Likewise, the American volume is perhaps the least successful. This is the nation which pioneered the juxtaposition of bland highway motel, tumbleweed-brushed lot and blank, uncomprehending vista. We’ve been here before, in a thousand movies, Sunday supplement picture stories and blank, knowing contemporary photography. History holds no novelty.
The final volume, Langweilige Postkarten, also fails to generate as much interest as its British counterpart, despite a diversion into the hinterlands of the Berlin Wall towards the end. There’s a greater emphasis on housing, less on transport (surprising) and (doubtless pleasing to its opponents) more proof of International Modernism’s unfortunate tendency towards synthesis, squeezing the whole world into a readily defined aesthetic. Perhaps the Germans just had more bad buildings (or forgot to photograph the good ones).
Are to we laugh with disdain, gasp in horror, squeak with delight or thrill with recognition at the images? Are we being invited to sneer at the hopelessly misguided civic optimism – town centres that have long since lost their lustre – or laugh at our forebears’ boundless faith in road transport – great empty stretches of virgin motorway, complete with cutting edge service stations? Even a photo labelled ‘A40 traffic’ (taken by a Mrs J.MacRae of Cassington Women’s Institute – a veritably encyclopaedic caption by the standard of these books) doesn’t condescend or criticise; traffic is a happy, healthy sign of a nation at one with progress, going places, doing things, being modern.
Boring Postcards has tapped all too readily into market saturated in retro imagery, doused in cool, framed by knowing quotes and all the more impenetrable for its stratified codes of likes, dislikes, ins and outs. For everyone who’s ever sat in an East End bar and fiddled with their WAP phone against a vast photo Technicolor reproduction of the Matterhorn, Boring Postcards must seem like an old friend. It’s even a mainstream aesthetic; Habitat’s 2001/2002 catalogue, while largely photographed in the Miesian surroundings of Skywood House in Buckinghamhire, designed in 1999 by Graham Phillips (of Foster and Partners), has taken the Boring Postcard aesthetic to heart. Those rich reds and furry rugs sure look familiar.
Parr has clearly saved his favourites until last; the last two images are the oft-reproduced ‘Bend on Porlock Hill’, with its Coleridgean overtones of inescapable tedium, and ‘Rain Clouds, from Southend Pier’, a menacing tableau of advancing weather, the scourge of the British holiday. Are these visual portents of trouble ahead the key attraction? For those of us unfamiliar with the dark art of the stylist or the existence of light pimps and backstreet Seventies stereo specialists, Boring Postcards is streaked through with regret. Here is a world that might have been. It’s hard to tell when the scales fell from our eyes and modernism – in all its variants – began its long spell in the wilderness. These books might depict a journey away from something that once seemed attainable, yet they are also an indication of a return to times past.
And so it goes.