Sometimes cliches lie. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. Boring Postcards, a small rectangular coffee table art novelty, contains no explanations or history of its pictures, no text, and no context - just page after page of boring postcards. There is nothing on its cover, not even a dust jacket, only the title and publisher's name set in brown letters against a lunch bag-brown background. A model of truth in advertising.
Well, not quite. Flip to any page. OK. Wow - now that's a boring postcard. It's so colossally boring it transcends boring, flits past trite, blows away lackluster, and hightails a gloriously mundane path to engrossing. It's an achievement in boring.
Take the postcard of the Pike View Motel in Strongsville, Ohio. Two-thirds of the picture is a dusty parking lot under a steel-belt sky. The date isn't known, but the two-tone peach-and-tan cars in the far background suggest the late 1950s. The hotel itself looks like it's been pass since day one, flattened by a sandy brick fa ade, and creeping with crab grass.
Keep flipping. Here's the middle of the book, and ... oh, dear.
A postcard of Lardsburg, N.M., a place so dreary the tumbleweeds add variety. Again taken in the late 1950s, the picture is one of those “Gateway” postcards - as in “Gateway to Memphis!” or “Gateway to Paris!” - but instead of austere arches or classic kitsch, dull pavement curls into the distance, past gas stations, used car lots, signs for “crystal clear” ice cubes, pop machines, hotels, puddles, and a few street lights. It's an America your eye usually passes over.
The only remarkable thing about the place is that someone took the trouble to pick up a camera, frame the picture, and snap. Most of the photos are roughly 25 to 50 years old, and uncredited, suggesting the work of lowbrow terrorists passing through Hibbing, Minn., on their way to the Skyline Motor Lodge in Cody, Wyo.
“Well, wonderfully bland,” said Martin Parr. “Therefore very interesting.”
For the last 20 years, Mr. Parr, 49, a British photographer, has stalked postcard shows, traveling “roadside America,” as he puts it, in search of the dullest of the dull. Boring Postcards (Phaidon, $19.95) is his new U.S. salute to the astoundingly banal. In England, his boring U.K. postcard book is already in a fifth printing, and soon a boring German edition is due - itself a redundancy, he said.
Next time you're feeling culturally inferior to Europe, consider this: Finding boring American postcards isn't easy, Mr. Parr said.
“It's easier to find interesting postcards in America because everything is over the top - '50s and '60s Americana is especially culturally interesting and kitschy. And kitschy doesn't lend itself to boring.”
Boring Postcards questions how we think of boring. As dull as it looks, the America here, post-World War II and optimistic, isn't kitschy or jaded - it's disappeared. Corporate logos haven't crawled into every inch of the landscape yet. New highway overpasses suggested progress, and the malls were covered in fresh brown shingles.
Now everyone is sophisticated, Mr. Parr said. “And people want dull, I think, if only because it's different. We live in a homogenized world, where it's hard to get excited when everything is slick and professional. The interesting things are the dull things.”
Not that the photographers in Boring Postcards worked with much pretense or set out to produce work of a staggeringly bland caliber. Look closely and you see a sincere concern for composition - albeit combined with a fundamental lack of talent.
Shot from an awkward distance, the postcard of the I-40-96 Truck Stop in Fairview, Tenn., is bordered (or perhaps obscured) tastefully by leaves; a photo of a tedious Indiana highway comes with the helpful caption, “Picturesque Indiana,” serving as a sort of subliminal reminder to never go to Indiana; a picture of the “complete line of spring-loaded, anti-backlash spur gears” isn't as cold as one might guess - overlit on a lime-green mat, the gears come garnished with a single rose; and the American flag waving in the foreground of a postcard for the Cherry Hill Shopping Center in New Jersey, surrounded by aisles of neglected parking spaces, looks less like a mall promotion than existential commentary on the desolation of modern existence.
Could it be ... unintentional art?
Sure. “But these people were doing a job,” Mr. Parr added. “Someone wanted to sell a car or a trailer park and they needed a postcard that could be used for publicity. They worked on commission and had to sell a lot of copies of a lot of pictures to make money, so their work was basic and utilitarian, which meant photographing a building in the most pedestrian way possible because that's all that was required of them.”
Still, you can't imagine anything as down to earth as Hank Williams playing in Junction, Texas, after you see the cold, detached shot of the town (“Howdy from Junction, Texas”) in Boring Postcards, its buildings and bridges specks in the distance.
Maybe minimalist composer Philip Glass.
“The funny thing is that this quietly full frontal way of looking at things is very hip now,” Mr. Parr said. He's talking about a deadpan, neo-artless aesthetic that's wormed its way through fashion photography and advertising (particularly for Volkswagen) and independent film, like the dry comedies of Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise).
In Mr. Parr's own portfolio, his specialty - he shoots for the prestigious British photo agency Magnum - is the innocently tacky: pictures of tea cups on clashing picnic blankets, and British sunbathers gone lobster red, and fake cherry blossoms.
In 1993, he shot an entire book of bored-looking couples, called Bored Couples. But a year ago, Mr. Parr, who said the boring German postcard book would be his last boring postcard book, brought his boring aesthetic full circle for one last boring fling. He visited the small town of Boring, Ore., and 468 pictures later, he shot everything with the word “Boring” written on it: Boring Route 212 signs, Boring Machine Works, etc.
“There are elements of irony in my work, of course,” Mr. Parr said, “but I'm genuinely enthralled. These dull, dreary things are absolutely fascinating. Besides, you can't call a book Fascinating Postcards - who cares about Fascinating Postcards?”