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Picturing a World

Rachael Robinson Elmer

In my work-in-slow-progress, "Anonymity," I have given my main character, Mattie, an apartment near 110th Street in New York and sent her walking through Morningside and Central Parks. In order to do so, I've looked at lots of historic photographs of the area, which was being built up in the first decades of the 20th C. It looked raw. By contrast, this postcard by Rachael Robinson Elmer makes it look lush and glamorous in a very urban way.

As David Hockney points out, the human eye does not perceive color, space, or perspective the way they appear in photographs. Furthermore, we see with our minds and emotions. (Spring Cannot Be Cancelled, pp. 172–3). This is an important difference for the historical fiction writer as well as the graphic artist. The emotional coloring (if I may use that term!) imparted by an painter to a scene may be of much greater use to a writer than the exact physical details recorded by the camera.
As for Elmer herself, she is little known partly because she died young. I am indebted to The Postcards of Rachael Robinson Elmer for putting me onto her. In themselves, these poster-like images situate her among the two generations of artists heavily influenced by Japanese woodcuts. (Compare the high placement of the El, for instance, to Utagawa Hiroshige's Enjoying the Evening Cool at Ryogoku Bridge  and Claude Monet's Railway Bridge at Argenteuil.) The fact that Elmer's pictures are very much of their period instead of wildly innovative, moreover, makes them useful for catching a likely mood for an ordinary character of the time.
For me, it's fun to imagine that someone in Mattie's fictional circle of artistic friends knows her. If you want to see more of Elmer's work, click here.

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