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Bringing in the Sheaves, Kansas City, Missouri, 1908. WHi 44599

Bringing in the Sheaves, Kansas City, Missouri, 1908. WHi 44599

Larger Than Life: Tall-Tale Postcards

Photographer Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr. specialized in the tall-tale postcard, extolling Wisconsin's agricultural abundance through images of oversized produce and animals. Staging his friends and family to pantomime story lines, Johnson added enlarged fruits, vegetables and animals to fit the background and included titles that attributed bountiful crops to local communities. Johnson's tall-tale postcards affirmed the American myth of abundance — a myth often at odds with reality.

Tall-Tales Postcards Tall-tale postcards emerged around the turn of the 20th century, when postcards came to function as surrogates for travel. People soon realized that postcards could be used to create or sustain a certain utopian myth about a town or region, and crafty photographers began to physically manipulate their photographs. Nowhere did these modified images, or "tall-tale postcards" as they came to be called, become more prevalent than in rural communities that hoped to forge an identity as places of agricultural abundance to encourage settlement and growth. Food sources specific to the region — vegetables, fruits, or fish — were the most common subjects.

Johnson began making tall-tale photographs around 1908 in his Waupun studio, and worked for more than a decade to develop and fine-tune the genre. Some of his images, while bearing photo credits from Waupun, have inscriptions claiming to picture somewhere else, exhibiting the entrepreneurial heart of the tall-tale postcard industry. Postcards diminished in popularity after World War I as the utopian myth on which these postcards were based began to fracture. Technological advances also brought new methods of communication and information exchange that made the "armchair" travel of postcards all but obsolete.

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