Prewar postcards from the ‘lost’ City of Pines

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2013 - 12:00am

Old photographs enhance the nostalgia for times past and places forever altered. We have mixed feelings of elation and loss as we surf websites and Facebook postings that remind us how our barrios, towns and cities — how our country —used to look like in some imagined “golden age”, ‘halcyon years’ or, as the very senior citizens amongst us would muse,  “peace time”, referring to the pre-war era.

The sentiment is more deeply felt if we are looking at large, sharp photographs of the past as though they were taken only yesterday. Vintage Baguio: Picture Postcards 1909-1941, now on exhibit at the Sanctuary Gallery at the old Maryknoll School in Campo Sioco, Baguio City. The school now offers only kindergarten classes, and is better known at present for its refurbished art gallery and the Ecological Sanctuary which has been drawing visitors to its outdoor showcase of trees and flowering plants, meditation spots, the whole green area marked at intervals by signposts narrating the evolution of nature across billions of years (definitely not your ordinary biblical version of creation).

The exhibit consists of blowups of some 80 black and white, sepia, and color-tinted postcards from the private collections of seven people with connections to the Baguio of old: Rina Locsin Afable, National Artist Ben Cabrera, Armand Voltaire Cating, Rudy Furuya, Michael G. Price, Delfin Tolentino, and the curator of the exhibit, art historian Erlyn Ruth Alcantara, who has been documenting the history of the City of Pines for several years now. 

For this exhibit, Alcantara enlarged and framed the postcards, some of which have writings on the back where there is space for postage on the right upper corner and some space for the sender’s message to the addressee — a medium for social communication and transmitting notes and images which, like the handwritten and posted letter, would seem alien to the techie generation brought up on computers, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. To give an idea of the originals, the curator produced facsimiles of the postcards and the reverse side, and put them under non-glare glass on a table to show their actual size, the different kinds and sizes of postcards then in vogue, and the technique of coloring or tinting employed on some of the black and white pictures. In a letter to this writer, the curator explains the highlights of this “down memory lane” exhibit:

“There are also special groups of postcards assembled in one panel each — the  ones that came as a set, like the color-printed cards produced by L.S. Company in 1909-1913, the collotypes produced for Pine Studio, the photography section of the Baguio Japanese Bazaar  (1920), and the color-printed cards produced by Curt Teich & Co. (1936) also for the Baguio Japanese Bazar. The panoramic postcards mostly produced by Nagatomi’s Mountain Studio are in the first long panel of the exhibition.

“While this exhibition covers a wide range of Baguio postcards, it still does not include many other postcards and postcard sets produced before World War Two. There is a wealth of material out there and there are other private collections which I would have wanted to be part of this show but there just wasn’t enough time to prepare for a bigger show. This is already a large show as it is. I would like to acknowledge Michael G. Price for sharing a lot of helpful information about postcards derived from his many years of independent and scholarly work on the subject. There were specific postcards – especially the panoramic postcards that I knew he had in his collection and a few others, like the Pine Studio collotypes, which I felt had to be part of this exhibition. The postcards from his collection round up the exhibition nicely and have made this show even more comprehensive.”

Here are some informative excerpts from the show’s eloquently written prospectus, in the curator’s own words:           

“This exhibition is a postcard view of Baguio’s past. Photographs printed as postcards like the ones exhibited here, were taken by early photography enthusiasts, travelers, and photo studios; some were based on early government pictures.

These were photographed during a period in Baguio’s history when the new American colonial regime had made substantial progress in building Baguio as a highland capital. This coincided with the beginning of the postcard era, making picture-postcards ‘an essential part of the illustrated historical record of that period.’

Developments in the technology of photography and printing processes can be seen in the different types of picture-postcards that were produced within the first three decades of the 20th century.

Travelers brought home these picture postcards as mementos and were collected in albums, or mailed to their family and friends: picturesque park sceneries, breathtaking vistas, quaint/exotic local culture and people, or eminent colonial buildings and Filipino elite’s summer homes in an early landscape. These were taken during a time when the city became known as ‘the Simla of the Far East’ and was fast becoming a popular travel destination.         

While these were photographed for purposes other than historical documentation, these postcards are valuable today as visual reference. More than being cultural remnants or souvenirs from a bygone era, these postcards could be rich sources of information, best interpreted within the story of Baguio’s growth.

Together, these picture-postcards show images of Baguio’s grandeur when it was once one of the world’s most beautiful ‘international small-cities.’ These images come from a period that many of us today can only imagine. At the same time, these could also be hauntingly familiar, like finding pieces in a shared and long lost memory. (Original text has research footnotes).”

The postcards were enlarged and framed for exhibition purposes and are up for sale to cover production costs and maintenance of the Sanctuary Gallery. The workmanship involved explains why the prices are on the level of those for, say, original paintings, but if her next project prospers, all these images can be had in one collection for the price of your standard coffee table book. Alcantara is now considering putting out a single tome that will contain the images in the exhibition, and in fact has prepared a dummy for this project. All it needs now is some financial backing from an institution, or from a patron with a passion for photography and history and an abiding sentimental love for “that Baguio we used to know”.   

The exhibit has been extended to Nov. 23. “So far the feedback has been very encouraging, even heartwarming,” reports Alcantara. “There are college students who come as a class. One comment on the guestbook says: All students — college and high school students — should see this. I learned so much from this show.” 

If some of those people who have seen the “Vintage Baguio” exhibit eventually become officials of this overpopulated, environmentally challenged, vehicle-clogged mountain retreat fondly remembered as the City of Pines, one hopes they had been inspired enough to help bring back some of the old glory which made this former American hill station the pride of the Cordillera.

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