October 2010

Postcards: Urban Imagery and Symbolism

Walter Sánchez
Universidad Mayor de San Simón

Each generation identifies with their city. The generation develops and changes along with it. The passing of generations is not homogeneous because each group built that city from representations of past, present, and future aspirations. Through this, we can consider that these images, and in turn ideas of social groups, are reflected in cultural symbols that give meaning to the city. Colors, names of streets and squares, monuments, statues, emblems, signs, styles of architecture, buildings and houses are real projections of how the subjective and the idealistic are reflected in the city.

Photographic records taken in the early twentieth century account for these urban representations, many of them have now disappeared. These records can be viewed in two ways: first, as a perception of an individual, the photographer with his camera that captures reality seen, then chosen and framed. On the other hand, as social reality of the era, the camera captures fragments of the city in a particular historical moment. It is in this duality that the picture may appear as a document that can help you understand what reality "is", although photography is an analogy of reality and, at the same time, a city´s imagining of itself.

The postcard is a type of cultural artifact that distributes photographic images that has mass circulation. These published photographic records can be seen as part of a chain of decisions ranging from the simplest production to the final consumption as a card and as an image. In this sense, the process involves various stages. Firstly the photographer’s eye locates the shot, an aesthetic and artistic process. Secondly, the application of technological features, the recording, the framing, the changing of settings, alongside the adherence to certain cultural, social, political and aesthetical values. Then the selection process, undertaken by the relevant individuals and companies who publish the postcards. Finally, the consumers buy the cards for different reasons. This process shows that while the choice of the picture for a postcard can be seen as random, it is the result of a series of selection criteria and influences, which although unimportant to the consumer, are an intrinsic part of the artistic process.

A quick review of the leading local photographers and editors of postcards shows that they overwhelmingly belong to the urban middle and upper class, predominantly male. Postcard collections that have survived to the present have belonged to the middle and upper economic classes. Therefore, it is possible to argue that both production and consumption of these cultural assets were targeted to, and by, a particular socioeconomic and cultural group, and it is possible to therefore assume, what kind of imagery the postcards strive to convey.

To advance this hypothesis, one may ask: What kind of images of the city of Cochabamba would male photographers have captured and disseminated to advance the middle and upper classes self imaginings? A quick analysis of a set of 50 cards shows that the vast majority are images of Cochabamba highlighting areas known as paseos in the city (popular public thoroughfares and open areas), and of the countryside, iconic buildings and elements representing the modernity of the city.

Postcard collections that have survived to the present have belonged to the middle and upper economic classes

The paseos are the most photographed sites. Not only do they represent specific places, but a way of life for people in the city of Cochabamba, mainly from the elite and business classes, but they are also visited by the lower classes. Constructed as spaces for social interactions and moments of recreation and leisure, these are fundamental parts of the cities inhabitants’ lives. The paseos are not only within the city, many of which are located in the heart of the countryside. The main walk was, without doubt, the Plaza de Armas, where people could enjoy the gardens and take a relaxing stroll. According to Jose Maria Achá it is a place of, “beautiful balconies adorning the uniform buildings that surround it.” Another ¨walk¨ highlighted was the Prado, considered the “ride of choice for many people of the city.” Every weekend, “large crowd of carriages, bicycles and horses, gave that place, so neglected by man, but favored by fertile soil, a very attractive air and ambience.” This major artery had several attractive annexes: Columbus Square, decorated with a small pond, bridge and all, benches placed under willows to rest at, and at the end of this boulevard to the north, stood a pavilion, from which the river Rocha could be seen.

In the fertile countryside walks, towns such as Calacala, Queru Queru, Recoleta and Sarco featured. A description can be useful in understanding the social importance of these ¨walks¨: “In the summer, most affluent families in Cochabamba move to the countryside, to spend long periods frolicking in the fields, enjoying family gatherings and swimming in the lakes. Poor people go to it only on Sundays, returning to the city at night, making merriment and singing to groups of guitars and charangos, saucy songs alluding to the opposite groups. “A place frequented by many people from the city was Cuellar Lake where people could walk under the shadows of the huge willows or paddle in calm waters in small wooden boats. The Plazuela de Cala Cala was another popular place. This plaza was connected with the Plazuela de la Recoleta with a quiet road lined with eucalyptus and poplar trees and was very popular with young people in the city. Although not exactly a place for walking, Rocha river, with its crystal clear waters was then a place where people not only came to bathe, but to walk in a relaxed environment.

The buildings of the city are other cultural icons often photographed. Primarily, religious buildings such as La Catedral, the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, the Iglesia del Hospicio and Iglesia de San Francisco.

One should note the large number of pictures taken from the countryside. Agricultural companies and landowners, the rural landscapes of the estates and farmsteads are important imagery photographed. Thus, there are farm houses and peasants, indigenous scenes of harvest and images of mountains and rivers. These country images can be contrasted with the photographic images that reflect modernity within the urban environment. The postcards that contain photographs of little trains and trams crossing the city are also highlighted.

All of these photographic images printed on postcard size are the imagery of the landowners and the urban classes in the city of Cochabamba, reflected in the record of its spaces, its buildings, its symbols and the way in which not only the buildings and its surrounding are used, but also idealized. All of this is evidence of a city unfinished. As the social groups have changed with the times, the cities identity and the aspirations of its inhabitants has changed with them, evident in the postcards of the past.

All of these photographic images printed on postcard size are the imagery of the landowners


Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas

Artículo traducido por
Cecibel Villca,
Miguel Ahuacho,
Jenny Lara,
Cintya Valverde,
Natalia Rodriguez

Estas en una Manzana Verde

The Manzana Verde campaign is a joint project of the Gaia Pacha Foundation and "4 C", a group of cultural centers and institutions based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The aim of the project is to build greener neighborhoods, Manzanas Verdes, through establishing the institutions involved as environmental focal points who will work to raise awareness of environmental issues, and promote behavioral change and environmental values in the neighborhood in which they are based. Each of the participating institutions works in their local area, aiming to make the neighborhood a Manzana Verde (Green Neighborhood).

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