Richard Lauder has been retired from teaching at Verona High School for 10 years, but he collects vintage postcards like it's his job. He says he prefers cards made before 1950 because of the 'real photo quality" of the black and white ink.
"Two-thirds of the joy of doing it is the hunt," Lauder says. "You never know where you're going to find a postcard."
Lauder estimates he has around 50,000 postcards that he's bought online and at postcard shows. Of these, a couple thousand are postcards of Door County, where he grew up. He says he likes to see what it looked like before it was "spoiled by tourists."
"It gets to be a sickness," Lauder says. "The postcards pile up after a while."
Lauder's most recent project has been compiling the Door County postcards into audio slideshows, where they are "brought to life" with sound effects mimicking the places they depict.
This way, he says, "they're not just in a box somewhere gathering dust. They're out speaking again."
Giving postcards a voice
Lauder records the audio himself, capturing Door County birds, lapping waters, howling wolves, car engines and chattering voices to add authenticity and dimension to the postcards that appear in the presentations.
On top of these soundtracks, he layers recorded voices of people reading the postcards' messages. The messages are generally short and mundane, but Lauder says some capture the "dialogue of the day." Others are steeped in history, like one 1909 postcard that references the Temperance Movement.
Some of the voices are Lauder's friends while others are strangers he meets at Memorial Union Terrace or on nearby hiking trails.
UW-Madison student Zak Markman was walking on a trail near Picnic Point in early May when Lauder approached him asking for a voice recording. "It seemed harmless enough,' he says.
Markman says Lauder was very particular in his directions about how to read the postcard. "He would say, 'Can you emphasize that comma more?' Until he got it exactly the way he wanted it,' Markman explains.
Lauder says he chooses readers based on their age and gender. For certain messages he wants an old voice, while other messages lend themselves to younger voices.
"You're trying to match a 1910 message with a 2012 individual," Lauder says.
Bringing history to Life
Lauder's home on the west side of Madison has become a postcard museum and work studio. His living room houses a shelf with around four-dozen shoe boxes filled with alphabetized, filed postcards. But that's just the beginning -- the rest of his postcards are in old albums or unorganized stacks around the house.
Descend into the basement and you'll find Lauder's studio with more postcards piled on desks and shelves. A flat-screen TV, which Lauder uses as a computer monitor, sits in the corner, with Adobe Premiere fired up for production.
Lauder selects a postcard, and walks me through his process. First, he scans the postcard and within seconds it appears on the plasma screen. Lauder edits the image in Photoshop, removing spots from old developing techniques and cropping the image. Next, he saves the photo with a number that corresponds to the ID number on the postcard itself. He adds the postcard to an Excel sheet, which has the numbers and basic information about all the postcards in his presentations.
"All this keeps you busy," Lauder says. "I don't go drinking."
The next step is opening the photo in video editing software. Lauder adds pan and zoom effects to help bring the image to life (a.k.a., the "Ken Burns effect"). This is also where he adds the audio effects and voices.
"It's a matter of trying to sew things together,' Lauder says.
The final creation is burned to DVD.
Sharing the cards
Lauder says the response of people who have seen his postcard presentations has been "overwhelmingly positive." He has presented them to various groups, including the Badger Stamp Club and Oakwood Village retirement community, and at the 100th anniversary celebration of Sister Bay.
Lauder says in general, he tries to "let the DVD do the talking." However, Lauder does pause the presentations periodically to insert his own comments "off the cuff."
"I taught for 28 years," he says. "It's not hard to talk in front of people."In early June, Lauder screened his presentation focusing on Fish Creek to the Gibraltar Historical Association in Fish Creek for the organization's Heritage Day. Member Nancy Sargent says she enjoyed the show, because she could relate to the people and places in the photographs.
"It got people really fired up and excited about their collection and how they could share it with other folks," she says.
Just thinking about the postcards as she speaks to me on the phone launches Sargent into a reminiscent monologue of the places she remembers from growing up in Fish Creek.
"My family is in the commercial fishing industry," she says. "That history, which is now gone, comes alive in the postcards."
Lauder is constantly revising and improving his presentations, and says sharing them with audiences helps him do so.
"You're looking for feedback," he says. "Did they enjoy it? Did they think it was too long?"
Lauder also sells copies of his DVDs for $20 a piece, which he says is a great deal because each presentation has around 200 old postcards.
Re-living the past
Lauder now has three completed postcard presentations, each about a different community in Door County. He is currently working on a fourth about Baileys Harbor.
"If I live long enough, there will be about 10," Lauder says.
The Fish Creek presentation, his first, took about nine months to complete, while his latest took only one month. He says he put in up to 16 hour days to finish it.
"I had all my hair when I started this," jokes Lauder, who is balding and sports a full gray beard.
For each presentation, Lauder reads books about the specific town he is focusing on. He says this helps him decipher the messages on the cards.
On a single card in one of the presentations, a man writes about "Gertie" dying, working on a house and his plans to be married that weekend "if she doesn't run away."
"That's dynamite," Lauder says. "It captures the flavor of tragedy and the life cycle."
The 'Golden Age' of postcards
Lauder says 1906-1913 was the 'Golden Age' of postcards. At the time, they were one of the best forms of communication. People sent postcards for everything -- holidays, birthdays and just because. There were series of postcards to suit all interests with such subjects as baseball players, flowers, pets and swearing sailors.
Today, we hear criticism that texting is ruining our speech patterns and spelling. Similarly, Lauder says in the 'Golden Age,' experts warned of "postcard-itis," saying the shorthand messages would lower levels of correspondence.
At the time, Germany was known for producing the best quality postcards, Lauder says. In particular, New Yorker John Winsch produced premium cards, which were printed in Germany.
Lauder has Winsch cards in his collection and is proud of it. He handles them carefully, pointing out the signature Winsch copyright stamp on each card and the fancy gold embossing.
This 'Golden Age' was severely slowed when the U.S. raised the paper stock tariff, aimed at interfering with the German postcard industry, Lauder says. The industry was also hindered by the development of printing presses that produced folded greeting cards.
It is, without a doubt, a bygone era, says Sargent. "Now you take a picture on your camera phone and send it to them. It's a lost art."