Exaggeration postcards by William 'Dad' Martin
“Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”
L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
There’s a photo of William ‘Dad’ Martin floating around the Internet. He is wearing a battered Civil War style forage cap and is cross-eyed. In other words he looks like the village idiot. But he can’t have been that silly. Within a year of hitting on the idea of constructing his first photographs featuring giant rabbits, corn and other agricultural products, each real photo postcard he produced was selling in the tens of thousands. At a time when most studios in New York were just getting by and serious art photographers couldn’t think of their work in terms of sales because they were so meagre, he was the most successful photographer in the US, and he was working out of Ottawa, Kansas, a town that wasn’t much more than a main street. Maybe that’s what the boggle eyes and the dopey expression are all about. Maybe they are pointed at those people up north – meaning New York and Chicago – who thought Kansas was inhabited by inbreds and other simpletons. Martin may just be saying, ‘everything you believe about us folks out here is true. Just ask my accountant’.
Even though he is usually described as being a photographer before he began creating his postcards, there doesn’t seem to be much or any of Martin’s earlier work around. Like a lot of small town photographers he could have left off identifying stamps, or more likely the popularity of his exaggeration postcards led him to neglect the standard studio work and the old negatives were sold off, destroyed or left to rot in a shed somewhere. He must have been a photographer in his early years. While imagining the scenes in his postcards was easy enough, creating them took skill only someone with considerable darkroom experience could have pulled off.
It wasn’t just his darkroom skill you have to admire. His attention to detail was scrupulous. In this image the ribbons on the girl’s bonnet as she squats on the running board are stretched out and her father is hunched forward as though the car is travelling at high speed. The top speed in the best cars at that time was about 40 mph, which may have been fast enough to flutter her ribbons, especially if the car was pointed into a breeze. Still, if it were really travelling that fast the spokes on the tyre would be a blur. The point is, when Martin set up the scene he understood that what made the image really funny wasn’t just the giant eggs and the potato on the back; it was the idea that the family would drive helter-skelter into town to sell their produce, the daughter hanging bravely off the car as it churned through a puddle. That puddle, obviously added on afterwards, is one of the few examples where Martin couldn’t get things precise.
The humour in the detail comes through in this one too, where the watermelon has fallen off the wagon and split. Lesser operators, and in the years following his success there’d be a few, rarely thought the scene through that carefully. How Martin achieved it was fairly straightforward. He took a photograph of the farmer on the road with his broken wagon and one of the melons and spliced them together. Even so, examine his postcards under a magnifying glass and only a few show the seams so to speak.
Another reason why he was the most superior of the exaggeration postcard creators in rural America was the sense of movement he brought to each scene. Here’s one by the Rotograph Co that is excellent in the care with which it has been made yet static compared to Martin’s scenes. In the one below, the hunter at the front slouches as though carrying a heavy load, (which he obviously wasn’t when the photo was taken) adding to the credibility of the scene. This one (of the giant ear of corn) is copyrighted 1907, at least a year before Martin started producing his cards. So he wasn’t the inventor as is often claimed but then he didn’t have to be. Comparing his to this, it’s clear he brought an energy and sophistication that hadn’t existed before.
Sophistication sounds like an odd word to use for Martin since the humour isn’t exactly subtle or restrained but it is carefully orchestrated and he knew all the jokes about rural Midwesterners, milking them for everybody else’s benefit while turning them on their head. Eight years earlier L Frank Baum had written The Wizard of Oz, a huge success critically and publically. To transport Dorothy to the fantastic world of Oz he needed a starting point and so he chose a place he had visited for only one day - two at most - yet appeared to be the dullest place on earth; “the dry, grey place you call Kansas”, as the scarecrow describes it to Dorothy. That seems to have been the general opinion of the state; flat and dull and running on a clock several hours slower than civilization desired. Martin understood that. Most of his farming folk don’t seem too bothered by time but if you were growing the world’s biggest cabbages would you need to be? So was Martin responding directly to Baum? There’s no proof though he is clearly taking aim at the attitude towards Kansas that Baum typified.
Interesting … When you read a lot in a hurry you tend to take things for granted, like the idea that Martin basically took two photographs and combined them. But look at this photo of the wagon loaded with giant cabbages and the one at the very top with the giant mules. Notice something similar? Look at the man leaning against the mules (or horses) in this photo and the man standing at the front of the wagon in the top photo. He’s one and the same. It seems Martin didn’t use just two photos as several commentaries suggest but several to make his images. In that sense he was a direct descendant of Oscar Rejlander, whose best known example of combination printing is The Two Ways of Life from 1857, involving 32 montages photographs. The difference is that Rejlander could have taken just the one photograph but artistic sensibilities of the age compelled him to make his job difficult. To make his vision of rural America work Martin had to go to just as complicated lengths. Another one of these people who didn’t invent anything yet was an original.
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