|Living||Wednesday, Sept. 19, 1984|
|The Sun||San Bernardino, California|
This kind of art really goes places
|By Dennis Kelly
Sun Staff Writer
COLTON- Merle Porter is a historian whose work will probably never end up in a library or a museum.
He's also an artist whose photographs will likely never earn an exhibition in some hoity-toity art gallery.
The only display that Porter's pictures are likely to get is on a rack in some drug store or on a counter in one of the tourists shops that abound near national parks and points of historic interest.
The 77-year old Porter is a postcard photographer; has been for more than 60 years. Never mind that his work isn't ranked up there with the great artistic photographers of the world. Millions of people have bought and enjoyed Porter's pictures, even though they may not have known who shot them when they paid their 7 or 10 cents.
|Porter, a resident of Colton, has been called the "post card king" a term he really doesn't care for. |
"The king" to me, is kind of a cheap name. I like to use the word, "dean of Western photographers" he said recently in an interview at his Colton home. After all, he points, he's been at his craft longer than the other guy who was thought of as a great Western photographer, the late Ansel Adams.
Nothing against Adams, mind you.
"His viewpoint and mine differed considerably ," he said. "But you can't knock success.
"These (my pictures) they're buying because they like the pictures, not because of the man," he said.
Porter makes no bones about the fact that he's in business to make money; not for sentiment, not for arts sake, but to make a good living. And make a good living he does, selling about one million post cards a year in shops throughout the West.
He guesses that just five or six photographers have the majority of the post card market in the U.S.
His personality seems suited to the business. He likes hard work, even though he'll still complain about it at times; wants his own time schedule; doesn't like to be told what to do; and enjoys traveling.
Porter calls himself a "scenic and documentary" photographer, and his post cards prove it.
His storehouse, next to his Colton home, is filled with hundreds of thousands of post cards that capture the pretty and historic side of Western America; mountain scenes where blue-water streams course through valleys of tall pines; coastal shots where the Pacific slaps its white foam against rocky cliffs; grand stills of waterfalls descending into Yosemite Valley. On the documentary side, Porter has shots of anything that might be of historic interest in a town, as well as simple shots of plain old downtown streets so that travelers can write home and show where they've been.
Porter was in Death Valley when the 20-mule teams were in use to haul minerals for processing. He has vintage shots of old downtown sections across the West, including many from Victorville, Hesperia, Calico, and other San Bernardino County desert locations.
"That kind of stuff is impossible for a guy to get again". Porter said, holding a postcard of the 20-mule team. "A lot of places are not there anymore".
He held up one post card showing a narrow gauge road that used to run through Mono County. Ask Porter when it was taken, however, and you may get a blank stare.
"I don't remember; gosh, it seems like it was just yesterday," he said.
"Somebody will bring it up and then ( I'll find out) it was 15 or 20 years ago. I've got a poor concept of time," he said.
Porter travels all over the West to get his pictures. When the urge comes, he and his wife, Bessie, will get in either his van or his small camper truck, and head out, covering as many as 1,000 miles a week.
Traveling that much, Porter doesn't have time to experiment with lots of different photo angles. He remembers being interviewed once for a story and the reporter asked him how many shots of each subject he shot.
"One ," came the reply. "What do you do if you make a mistake?" the reporter asked. Porter shot back, "Then you're not a photographer".
Porter's Royal Pictures company compiled an impressive an impressive inventory of scenic post cards that he himself would sell to shops throughout the West.
"You figure you've got to sell 7,000 to 10,000 cards a day or you're out of business," he said. At one time, Porter had an inventory of some 3 million postcards. But Porter is letting that dwindle down.
"I'm not going to last forever," he said.
He farms out all his printing and developing now, too.
"I served my apprenticeship in the darkroom," he said, with a touch of disgust in his voice. "I'm not going to work in a darkroom for anybody"
Porter got started in photography at the rip old age of 14. He had an uncle who was interested in photography. Then, he came by some photo equipment of his own.
Porter had taken some pictures of men picking pears in Pearblossom, and when a drugstore owner saw those, he told Porter, "Hey, I can sell those". Porter took more and more pictures of pear-picking in Pearblossom.
Porter ended up in a photography trade school, and quickly made a name for himself in the post card business.
"I figured I would make money at it," he said. "Like I told you, I'm mercenary. I like that folding cabbage."
Porter says there are two things that sell a post card. One is the photo. The other is a good caption. "You've got to have a good picture, but your captions have got to tell a story," he said. He spends more time researching information for the caption than he does taking the picture.
Porter is high on post cards. With prices that range from 10 to 25 cents a piece, they are still the cheapest form of communication there is, he said.
And with a post card, he adds, "You don't have to say anything. They know where you have been because they see it. And they know you're all right because you wrote it. So all you need to do is print your name on a post card."
Even though he is well past the retirement age for most people, Porter says he will never retire. For one, he can't deduct expenses from his income tax when he's retired.