Sunday, July 1, 1984
Capturing memories for millions
'Postcard king has photographed most of the West for last 60 years
By David Haldane Press-Enterprise Staff Writer
If you've ever spent a vacation in any of the Western states, you've probably seen Merle Porter's work.
Joshua Trees standing upright in a yellow desert backgrounded by snowy mountain peaks. Prospectors in red and yellow shirts panning for gold in California's Mother Lode. The cool spray of Yosemite Falls tumbling majestically over enormous boulders framed by lush green foliage.
"If it's saleable," claims Porter, "I've already photographed it"
That's how the Colton resident came to be known as the "post card king" a characterization he deplores. "I'd rather be called the dean of Western photographers," Porter, 77. " I figure I been doing it longer than Ansel Adams anyway.
In fact, he even had a running acquaintance with Adams back in the 1920's, when, claims Porter, Adams was more interested in wooing his future wife than in taking his now-famous pictures of the Yosemite Valley. But Porters artistic sensibilities differ radically from those that Ansel Adams held. While Adams' work is black and white, moody and occasionally impressionistic, Porter's is colorful sharply focused and easily discernable.
That's because it's sold in drugstores, bus depots, hotel lobbies and gift shops where, he says, tourists won't spend a metal slug on a post card that doesn't clearly show the folks back home what they've seen.
But his creations are more than just souvenirs, Porter says. They are mini exercises in historical education. For on the back of each is a paragraph written by the photographer on his ancient Remington typewriter narrating the history of the area or object portrayed. "I don't listen to what people say," says Porter of his historical research. " Usually I try to find an old newspaper clip written at the time."
One card, a photo of a 20-mule team hauling wagons across the desert, contains a description of how the wagons were built in pioneer days. Another depicts St. James Episcopal Church in Sonora, California, believed to be the oldest Episcopal church in the state.
"I've got a lot of things a guy can't get now," Porter says of his post card stock, referring to scenes he's photographed over the years that are unlikely to recur.
He got into the picture business at age 14 after a traveling photographer took a photo of him and sold it to his parents. For a few years Porter did the same for other families, working in black and white and doing the processing himself. Eventually, he began making tourist post cards and after World War II switched to color, which he has been using ever since.
Though at one time, Porter's Royal Pictures company employed eight people, today he and his wife, Bessie, do everything themselves save the printing, which is farmed out. Porter says he puts about 1,000 miles a week on his van or camper taking new pictures with his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and distributing the finished product throughout California, Arizona and Nevada.
He's been doing it long enough to make some generalizations about who buys what. European tourists, for instance, tend to like desert scenes because they can't imagine such wide-open spaces. Except Frenchmen, who like cities. And Japanese, says Porter, are more interested in Western history than practically anyone else. " I like them," he says of the group, "because they know more history of the West than do Westerners."
And just what sells to the domestic crowd? Beach scenes with boats in them and mountain scenes with animals. And if you can help it, he says, never include people or automobiles in your shots because they will date the cards too quickly.
Porter freely admits that he is more interested in greenbacks than in art. "People will never stop buying post cards," he asserts, " because they're still the cheapest means of communication."
Over the years, that fact has earned him an abundant living. At any given time, says Porter, he has 2,000 to 3,000 different cards available. And a storage building next to his home is constantly stacked from floor to ceiling with enough cards to build a small house.
But even in the chaos of this massive stock, says Porter, a few individual creations stand out. His favorite is a picture of a Northern California mountain stream under a blue blue sky that looks "cool and refreshing." And he claims that a depiction of Convict Lake describing how it got it's name actually inspired a Hollywood script writer to produce a major movie on the theme.
More and more, though, Porter's sojourns through the West have to do with selling rather than creating. While last year he produced some 100 new cards, this year's crop will consist of only about half a dozen. In fact, says Porter, he'd like to sell his business altogether and go into video.
"I've already shot almost everything," he says with a bored look.
Few familiar with his work would disagree.