The postcards also gave Evans a handle for his own achievement. In 1964, in a lecture on his postcard collection at Yale, he coined the phrase "lyric documentary," and immediately applied it to his art. He defined the term as a celebration of fact subtly modulated by an artist's innate style, and as a rejection of Alfred Stieglitz's photographs, which he considered strained and called "decadent lyric." The marvelous photo-album-like book accompanying the Met show includes a transcript of the lecture along with reproductions of the postcards Evans used as illustration.
Evans traced the history of "lyric documentary" to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, forward through Palladio and Henry James to his hero Eugène Atget, the French photographer. In the lecture, Evans called Atget "the supreme lyric documentary photographer," an understandable accolade. Evans's postcard collection is a found, Atget-like account of America.
Finally, the show includes all three of the magazine articles about postcards, written, designed and illustrated by Evans. (All are reproduced in facsimile in the book; in the first article the postcards are reproduced with three-dimensional shadows hand-rendered by Evans.) The first appeared in Fortune in May 1948, with the deadpan headline "Main Street, Looking North From Courthouse Square." Its opening sentence sums up postcards, but also Evans's art and suggests a not-so-failed writer: "The mood is quiet, innocent, and honest beyond words."
Without diminishing his achievement, this show reverberates beyond Evans. The postcards celebrate America at the beginning of the last century. They also confirm the vigor of this country's often anonymous grass-roots art forms and the importance of popular culture to so-called high art. More sadly, in a time when schools across the country are slashing their art programs, this unusual exhibition suggests the often decisive effect of our earliest aesthetic experiences. "Home is where we start from," wrote the psychologist D. W. Winnicott. The richer the formative experiences there, the better for everyone.
"Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard" runs through May 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (212) 535-7710, www.metmuseum.org.