Postcards from the Edge - of Time

In the era of Flickr, Photobucket and Tumblr, the humble postcard is about as up-to-date as a bullock cart standing alongside a gleaming Toyota Prius. We’re all subjected to a constant barrage of images, so much so that photography has almost lost its ability to move us. Nowadays, pictures flash before our eyes but we barely register them.

Part of the problem is the very ease with which we can now take photos. Just one click and it’s done: assisted by a range of gizmos that focus automatically, select the exposure and determine whether or not we need a flash. Moreover, we’re encouraged to save endless poorly taken photos in voluminous galleries located on various ‘cloud-based’ sites.

This is all well and good but the art of photography — what separates us from the likes of Andreas Gursky, Mapplethorpe and Cartier Bresson — is the process of selection, of editing and, most important, of discarding, something that we have forgotten as we up- or download images by the thousands. Sadly, it seems that more is less with present-day photography.

However, recently my faith in photography was restored and in the most unusual of circumstances. I happened to be in Singapore and my visit coincided with an auction preview. Instead of paintings by Affandi, Nyoman Masriadi or Agus Suwage, there were antique books, travel posters and Balinese paintings from the turn of the 20th century. Rooting through the various sale lots, I came across ring-folders crammed with faded black-and-white postcards (called “briefkaart” in Dutch) depicting Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies era.

At first and quite nonchalantly, I flipped through the files. I didn’t think I was going to be too interested but as I looked more closely, I became quite intrigued. When I reached the ring-folder containing postcards of Surabaya (or “Soerabaja”), I found myself turning the pages only after I’d studied each of the images individually. By now, I wasn’t glancing; this wasn’t a hurried or a cursory look before moving on.

Instead, I found myself studying the images carefully, one by one, lingering over the street scenes — the men in traditional Javanese wear, the various horse-drawn carriages and trams as well as the steamers docking at the Tanjung Perak harbor (or as it was more eloquently titled: Haven Tandjoeng Perak). There were photographs of different parts of the city — the Pasar Besar, Wonokromo, the warehouses that lined the Kalie Mas, the alun-alun and the Chinese and Arab Quarters. Knowing Surabaya pretty well, I lingered over one or two of the postcards as I tried to remember what that particular stretch of the city looks like now. Surely the tree-lined “Toendjoengan” was near the existing and continuously mushrooming Tunjungan Plaza? Hadn’t I stopped and alighted from my car at what was formerly named “Kroesen Park”?

Each of the images was imbued with a sense of mystery and incompleteness. Where were the uniformed cadets cycling off to? Would Minke, Pramoedya’s hero from the Buru tetralogy, have looked like these young men? Why were the songkot-wearing men in the Arab Quarter looking on so menacingly? Which Dutch official was staying in the resplendent Residentshuis?

The postcards reveled in the gleaming machinery chugging through Surabaya’s streets — the trams, the early cars and buses: modern, dynamic and changing.

I was enjoying a random series of snapshots — fragments if you like — captured on film and laboriously rendered in a dark-room replete with ammonia and Dektol before being converted into print. These images had survived more than 80 years and some as much as 100. They had been stored haphazardly at first and later reverentially as collectors or even just ordinary folk recognized their worth.

The collection wasn’t necessarily comprehensive or thorough. What I had in my hands was the result of a combination of chance and the previous owner’s determination to gather as many postcards as possible. Nevertheless, the fact they’d survived for so many decades made me want to possess them so that in years to come they’d be part of my memories of Surabaya and Indonesia. So, fired up by the thought of possessing a unique slice of photographic history, I bid (and quite aggressively at that) for the postcards and bought the folder, which now rests snug and safe on my desk.

(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia. This also appears in the Jakarta Globe.)