October 22, 2020

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Postcard-Perfect Scenes, Constructed From Memory and Scraps of Paper

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For nearly four decades, the artist and photographer Vik Muniz, 58, has been collecting postcards. He sends some to loved ones and friends, but sometimes he sends them to himself to see which will arrive home first: the postcard or him. But many of his postcards end up snipped into little pieces and rearranged to create collage-like postcards of some of the world’s most famous places.

“I wanted to make ‘somewhere’ out of thousands of little ‘nowheres,’” he said in a telephone interview from Salvador, Brazil, recently. “A lot of what happens with my work has to do with how the outside world conforms with the image you already have in your head.”

Mr. Muniz’s postcards of Paris, New York, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, the Taj Mahal and more are the focus of “Postcards from Nowhere,” a book scheduled to be published by Aperture, the photography foundation and publisher, in November.

To create a postcard, Mr. Muniz starts by thinking about a city — his memories of it, the markers that make it familiar, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Piccadilly Circus in London or the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. These places are among the first things most travelers envision when they think of Paris, London or Agra.

“The name, some of the addresses, a couple of narratives make a volatile amalgam of signs in my head that mean ‘Paris’ to me, and create a framework that I fill with whatever building, cobble, lamplight, baguette and tree I carry in my visual inventory,” he said. “I end up picturing something that’s like Paris.”

After deciding on an image mentally, Mr. Muniz begins the search for a postcard in his collection that matches the image in his mind. Sometimes he already has the postcard, other times he has to buy it.

Once he has the right image, he makes a copy of it. He uses that image as a reference for the new postcard he is creating. Then he takes “lots and lots and lots” of postcards and cuts them into thousands of small pieces and looks at the reference copy while piecing together the cut-up fragments, as though he were putting together the pieces of a puzzle or a mosaic. (He likes to make clouds from the text on the cards’ reverse sides.)

Once this image is complete, Mr. Muniz photographs it in high resolution or scans it, depending on the image, and enlarges it, focusing on bringing every detail to life. The final postcards vary in size, but they usually are close to 6 feet by 8 feet.

“I think about the relationship between the parts and the whole,” he said. “If I make the image too big, I’ll have a drawing that’s accomplished, but then you don’t see the little parts. I work the parts until they fit and in this way I am a mosaic artist.”

Some postcards were easier to bring to life than others, Mr. Muniz said. He said that he struggled to create New York City, for example, because he couldn’t quite settle on an image of the city where he’d spent most of his adult life. His view of the city includes the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

When he started the series, each card took a few weeks to complete, but by the time he was closing out the project, some were taking just a few days to create.

Mr. Muniz said he hopes that people connect with the images and can feel like they are, once again, in a place they’ve been before.

“When you approach it you feel like you’re actually there,” he said. “Each part feels real and it has an identity. You’re looking at an image that’s very distracting because it’s made out of things that are out there, they have almost a physical presence.”

Images of all the collages that appear in this article are included in “Postcards from Nowhere, Vol. I” (Aperture, 2020).



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