Learning about Postcards

San Francisco Bay Bridge by Night in light fog

One of the most popular applications for photographs in a tourist city like mine is postcards.

A what? A postcard is a still-popular, old-fashioned mailbox surprise from afar: a small, sturdy photo (or drawing, or illustration) commemorating your visit to some location – preferably a famous or glamorous one.

Postcards have been around (and popular) for more than 150 years.  Photo postcards in particular have established conventions, which I have been unintentionally learning through my multi-year membership in Postcrossing, an 800,000 member, 200+ country postcard exchange program.

The main convention is: show the well-known, popular things.

I’m a niche fine art photographer, and while I create lots of California landscapes, I love niche subjects (botany! cephalopods! waves! tiny architectural details! minimalist design!), so I went out looking for unique, niche, or tiny detail postcards, only to read recommendations on the Postcrossing member pages again and again that specified what recipients REALLY want: “tourist cards.”

This is a real term!  Tourist cards.  They show a representative image of a widely recognized landmark.  The things that tourists seek out when they go to a famous place.

Me: … Oh!

Countless people who work in my hometown already knew this: people come to San Francisco, they want stuff with the Golden Gate Bridge on it, and businesses are fully prepared to give them those GGB things.  I have always known this conceptually, but have not applied it: the fine art world is keen on novel or previously unseen things, and that is where I have successfully shown images of the veins of leaves in cyanotype, gardens in infrared, or the fine details of a computer motherboard in wet plate collodion on aluminum.

SO!  After sending commercially available versions of what I was asked to provide, and then being told by a recipient that she got two of the same card (predictable, but still frustrating), I am now looking at my local landmarks afresh to photograph them in a way that will satisfy this demand.

I am learning new things! I am truly scrutinizing local landmarks, after years of looking past or around them, due to over-familiarity. I have waited for “the golden hour” near SFMoMA, and have taken night photos of my dear City Hall that are postcard-appropriate. I’ve learned that writing “San Francisco” on an image makes it more popular (and fits the conventions). I have read the requests, and photographed Ocean Beach to accommodate interest in (a) views of sunny beaches, (b) views of the ocean at sunset, and (c) views of approaching storms.  The results have been well-received, and show that I am learning from my recipients.

2019 A.E. Graves postcard samples
Examples of well-received images of local landmarks

While I still have almost NO photos of cable cars, I’ve even learned that SF’s locally adored collection of antique streetcars is widely adored generally in postcards!  I have some fun homework coming up!