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Books: Rediscovering the Art of Mike Roberts, America's Postcard King

By David Schonauer   Monday July 13, 2015


It was just the perfect missive to send to friends back home.

A color photo of Alcatraz, surrounded by the blue of San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Adorning the image, in script typeface, are the immortal words, “Wish you were here!”

The classic postcard delighted many a San Francisco tourist, and as such it has become an enduring American icon. It was just one of the many, many postcards shot by photographer Mike Roberts, who imbued the country’s most scenic locations with vivid color and the kind of humor that made long summer car trips bearable.

Robert’s work and contribution to America’s growing travel culture gets its due in a new book, Wish You Were Here—Mike Roberts: The Life and Times of America’s Postcard King, written by his son, Bob Roberts. The book contains 103 color and 51 black-and-white photographs, selected from what publishers say were the “billions” of postcards Roberts produced over the course of his 50-year career in places like Disneyland, the Alamo and Hawaii.

Seventy of the images were meticulously restored by Taralynn Lawton of The Image Flow, an archival printing, retouching and restoration service in Mill Valley, CA. The company’s blog  notes that Lawton painstakingly reproduced each image with a high-resolution camera and then retouched the files. On some, she had to smooth out the dot texture, a result of the halftone printing process of the original images. On others, Lawton had to repair tears and scratches or even replicate lost portions of images.

As rewarding as the pictures are, the story of Roberts’s career is equally compelling. A self-taught photographer, he left home at the age of 16 with a box camera and eventually began working at a photo studio in San Bernardino, Ca. His career took off when he began shooting pictures for a Standard Oil Company project.

“The company wanted to promote their gas after the war, so they sent photographers out to take color pictures,” notes his son. “When you filled up your tank with gas you got one picture; the idea was you’d fill up your album and it would motivate you to travel to these places. My father sold about 18 photographs, but had a whole bunch left over, so he decided to make postcards.”

Roberts was collecting material for a memoir when he passed away in 1989; it was more than two decades later before Bob Roberts was able to complete the project. The book is both an appreciation of a photographer who turned his passion into a business and a celebration of another time in American, recaptured in the hues of nostalgia.

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