March 17–July 25, 2022

Real Photo Postcards

Pictures from a Changing Nation

In 1903, at the height of the worldwide craze for postcards, the Eastman Kodak Company unveiled a new product: the postcard camera. The device exposed a postcard-sized negative that could print directly onto a blank card, capturing scenes in extraordinary detail. Portable and easy to use, the camera heralded a new way of making postcards. Suddenly almost anyone could make photo postcards, as a hobby or as a business. Other companies quickly followed in Kodak’s wake, and soon photographic postcards joined the billions upon billions of printed cards in circulation before World War II.

Real photo postcards, as such photographic cards are called today, captured aspects of the world that their commercially published cousins never could. Big postcard publishers tended to play it safe, issuing sets that showed celebrated sites from towns across the United States like town halls, historic mills, and post offices. But the photographers who walked the streets or set up temporary studios worked fast and cheap. They could take a risk on a scene that might appeal to only a few, or capture a moment that would otherwise have been lost to posterity. As the Victorian formality of earlier photography fell away, shop interiors, construction sites, train wrecks, and people acting silly all began to appear on real photo postcards, capturing everyday life on film like never before.

Featuring more than 300 works drawn from the MFA’s Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, this exhibition takes an in-depth look at real photo postcards and the stories they tell about the US in the early 20th century. The cards range from the dramatic and tragic to the inexplicable, funny, and just plain weird. Along the way, they also reveal truths about a country that was growing and changing with the times—and experiencing the social and economic strains that came with those upheavals.

Today, real photo postcards open up the past in ways that can surprise and puzzle. Few of them come with explanations, so over and over again even the most striking images leave only questions: “why?” and sometimes even “what?” “Real Photo Postcards: Pictures from a Changing Nation” is a forceful reminder that memory and historical understanding are evanescent.

  • Herb Ritts Gallery (Gallery 169)
  • Clementine Brown Gallery (Gallery 170)

Art for This Moment: Known and Unknown

A sepia-tinted photograph of a man in white standing inside a food cart with signs reading "Hamburgers."  Text at the bottom of the photograph reads "Gene McInturff, Hutchinson, KS"

Marion W. Bailey, Eugene McInturff’s hamburger stand (detail), about 1914. Gelatin silver print on card stock. Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive.

For Art for This Moment, the MFA’s blog, “Real Photo Postcards” curator Benjamin Weiss looks at two similar images featured in the exhibition, searches for clues to their subjects’ identities, and examines the misperception that “knowing” lends more importance to a story.

Read the Essay

Related Publications


Funds for this exhibition provided by the American Art Foundation, Leonard A. Lauder, President.