On the Map, 2021 (in progress)

Wet plate collodion photographs in collaboration with Rodolfo Salgado Jr of River City Tintype

Golden Pond
Golden Pond
Cannel City
Rowletts
Rowletts
Paint Lick
Paint Lick
Bryants Store
Bryants Store
Mill Springs
Mill Springs
Montpelier
Bronston
Bronston
Waynesburg
Waynesburg

Rodolfo Salgado Jr and I have long used centuries-old print media techniques to interrogate contemporary social norms and investigate the ways knowledge is portrayed and shared through print. When photographic printing methods were first developed in the 1840s, a flood of new printing techniques entered the market. Many were cumbersome, expensive, and fragile. However, wet plate collodion photography (also known as “tintype”) became widely accessible and affordable social media for consumers. By 1862, the United States Post Office was heavily engaged in mailing letters with tintypes. People placed tintypes of family, friends, and even celebrities, landmarks, and Civil War generals in photo albums, which had just entered the market. Traveling tintype photographers were so numerous that they frequented even the most rural towns, often trailing Union Army troops with tents, portable buildings, and photographic studio cars. 

 

Also in 1862, Kentucky-born Postmaster General Montgomery Blair ordered the first topographical maps of post offices to be ordered for production and sale to the public. As David M. Henkin describes in The Postal Age, the decades preceding the Civil War were a time of “extraordinary mobility” in the United States, reinforced by a swiftly-expanding system of postal routes, mass distribution of newspapers, and federal support of a free press through reduced postage. “Cheap and omnipresent pictures” in the form of tintypes were the first to be safely mailed in envelopes, as they were small and printed on lightweight but sturdy metal plates. Together, the tintype and post office network constituted an inexpensive and accessible social media platform. 

Post offices have long been markers of “the beginning of history” of a place. In rural communities like Appalachian coal towns, record-keeping—and sometimes even place-naming—did not take place until a post office arrived. A post office put a community “on the map.” In 2020, post offices continue their important roles as hubs for information exchange and markers of local identities. However, recent closures may signal a community in decline. Since 2007, more post offices have closed in Kentucky than any other state. 

 

Most of the Kentucky towns that have lost a post office are rural, unincorporated, and losing people. Disproportionately poor and elderly, they’re places where vital services are already difficult to access and where high-paying jobs can be hard to find.

 

Even in a digital world, delays in shipments of medicines, payments, and correspondence put Americans at risk. In my collaborative and individual artistic research, I investigate the ways that the past influences the present—particularly the ways that historical artifacts like letters, newspapers, and maps have lasting impacts on the social lives of places. I am particularly motivated by stories on the verge of being forgotten or erased. I select art media and methods to fit the content and context of the subject of my historical research. A central research question will guide production and presentation of original artwork, including tintypes, drawings, video, and prints: What did post offices look like, and where were they, at a time when letters and tintype photographs were among the first widespread and accessible social media?