There’s a joke in Don DeLillo’s White Noise about the “world’s most photographed barn.” No one remembers why anyone took its picture in the first place. It has become famous merely for being famous.
Martin Parr collects the world’s least photographed barns and presents them in books called Boring Postcards. Published by Phaidon, last year’s introductory volume concentrated on sites in the U.K., and Parr has recently followed it up with a book devoted to the U.S. These compendiums of actual postcards boast postwar motels, banks, highway underpasses, and industrial infrastructure so staggeringly mundane, so risibly banal as to defy belief. There’s “The Mall” at Horseheads, New York, a 1970s shopping plaza clad in wood shingles and stuffed with wrought iron, where a smattering of fake plants rings a colossally unspectacular water feature; there’s the TraveLodge in Kingman, Arizona, a two story affair whose parking spaces extend to the pool’s edges (drive-in swimming!); there’s the “Taylor Rental Center” in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with a humble enfilade of snowblowers and power mowers assembled out front (Wish you were here?). There are scenes the mind’s eye has absorbed–and promptly discarded–a hundred times, cruising the turgid iconography of the suburban strip. What makes them noteworthy is that someone has bothered to select a perspective, find the best light, frame the image, and commit the structure to posterity.
“I don’t really think they’re boring at all ,” says Parr, a reserved Englishman residing in Bristol who is himself a photographer. For years he has accrued his artistic reputation with a mordantly witty eye and a penchant for chronicling obsessions, such as Japanese commuters sleeping on trains, bad weather, and the English middle class. Most recently, he’s deployed a ring-flash camera normally used in medical photography to put his subjects–even those on the bright English seaside–under a revealing light. With Postcards, Parr indulges in the charms of curatorial work. “I think they’re absolutely interesting–the title is a way to get people’s attention,” he says. “In fact they have this whole layer of information and revelation about the society behind them.” The postcards present a secret history of the anonymous buildings that surround us and the moment that produced them. When the English M1 highway was built, a flurry of postcards circulated in its honor. “People would literally write on the back, ‘I’ ve just been on the M1; it was fantastic,'” he says. Decades of gridlock and accidents have taken their toll, however–the novel has ossified into the dreary. “You can’t buy a postcard of the M1 anymore,” he notes.
Parr would know–his methodically sorted postcard collection numbers well into the thousands. Boring Postcards stems from an idea he shared with a Bristol arts center to mount a competition in search of the “world’s most boring postcard.” For the U.S. version, he haunted postcard shows in Manhattan. “I kept asking these dealers about these cards and by the end they were coming over and asking, ‘Is this boring enough for you?,” Germany will be the theme of the final Boring Postcards compilation. “And Germany is meant to be boring,” notes Parrwith wry satisfaction.
Boring Postcards USA reads as a Technicolor-toned paean to the optimism of postwar America, when every “Farmer’s Bank” and bus terminal that went up from Wauchula, Florida, to Raton, New Mexico, was cause for celebration. Who can look at the photo of the taconite plant in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a gray assemblage of buildings photographed from a distance, and fail to be stirred by the large white square marked on an adjoining section of forest, which reads “Site of Proposed Larger Taconite Plant”? Who would not get sentimental gazing upon Tri-County, the “Shopping Showplace of Ohio,” a series of flat, outsized boxes sailing majestically in a sea of parking?
Comparing the boring postcards of England and America evinces subtle cultural distinctions. People in the English cards, for example, register more as crowds than individuals; rarely does anyone look at the camera. Similarly, the architecture seems more institutional in the British collection–the tower blocks that rise ominously in the backdrop of the “Market Precinct” in Scunthorpe or the Le Corbusier-esque mix of large buildings and empty spaces that compose the “Harlow New Town.” Another curious distinction is that American cards frequently embellish the title–they’ll go on about “The Beautiful New and Modern Greyhound Bus Station and Ramp Parking Garage” or “The beautiful and spacious dining room of the Wesleyan Retirement Home in Georgetown, Texas,” while their English counterparts never do. “Perhaps it’s just typical British understatement,” offers Parr.
Parr’s books raise the question of what boring architecture–and boring photography–really is. He compares some cards to the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German artists acclaimed for coolly detached shots of industrial structures, such as water towers. The “Fast Reactor” atomic plant in Caithness, Scotland, may indeed be “boring,” but the postcard presents an expressionistic, almost haunting black-and-white image of a Bauhausian box with a huge bulbous dome. Its boredom is in the mind of the beholder.
Martin Parr’s postcards are a populist chronicle of a time when the idea of modernism was trickling down into everyday life, when a town’s signal achievement was to have an airport with a glass box terminal and a clean, well-lit departure lounge; when American prosperity could be measured in the abundance of custom car washes and “Oil Tank Farms”; when no technical achievement–whether the M1 motorway or Flexalum Aluminium (sic) Awnings–seemed undeserving of photography that prompted visitors to communicate a sense of wonder or adventure. Once contemporary viewers get beyond the initial perverse frisson–“I can’t believe someone made a postcard of this”-they will be anything but bored. They may even be a little awestruck.