Sometimes it takes traveling to a foreign place to see something with fresh eyes. Like these vintage photo souvenir books. Have you ever seen them? I feel like I must have — in American flea markets, antique shops, etc. But somehow it didn't register until recently.
Even Rich Remsberg, a researcher who makes a living looking at old photos, agreed when I asked him for context: "I see them a lot, but never really gave them much thought."
It's probably because back in the day, these things were a dime a dozen. About the the size of a deck of cards, they usually contain about 10 scenic landmarks or landscapes from a specific place: the Colosseum, the cathedral in Chartres, the Matterhorn. It's probably also because they're photos that by now we've seen a million times.
These days, our visual culture is one of supersaturation, which means we're really hard to impress. On the one hand, it's amazing to see photos from Syria in the same infinite scroll as that pretty cappuccino leaf. But effectively, it means that in a world where ideas are increasingly communicated visually, every message (i.e., image) has equal weight. Like, I see a photo of Versailles, one of the most opulent constructions in history ... and shrug.
But I'll state the obvious: That wasn't always the case. At one point, it was harder to get to these places and harder to take great photos of them — and the only way to convey what you saw in your travels was physically.
"Building up to World War II and a booming travel industry after, these [photo] sets ... were cheap, fast purchases that didn't take up too much space," says Shannon Perich, a senior curator at the Smithsonian. "They also contributed significantly to the spread of shared visual culture."
It's something we don't need help with today. Thanks to the World Wide Web, I was sharing photos of my travels almost in real time. Here's the weird thing: I love shooting film, especially when I travel — and yet on a recent trip I found myself almost exclusively using my phone. Because it's easy, it's fun and it's instant feedback. The one thing Instagram and little souvenir books have in common: They're both evidence that we just love to share.
But by the end of my trip I was craving something tangible. These charming little books are in no way representative of my travels: I didn't go to Nimes or the Pyrenees. But my favorite thing was wandering through markets, getting lost, finding treasures. Forgive me if you already know this, but our word souvenir comes from French — se souvenir, which means to remember.
And at least personally, physical things help me remember. They also help me share stories. So I've put my souvenirs, my memories, on a coffee table, hoping they might spark a conversation.
Or who knows, maybe they'll end up back in a flea market soon enough.