Poster Cities: The Problem with Creating “Places”

Anyone who saw my college dorm room knows that I love collecting vintage travel  posters. It felt like I was turning my walls into a mid-century microcosm of the world by having the great cities juxtaposed with one another.

No people, just a garden and mosque for you to explore

Originally designed by tourism bureaus, railroad and airline companies throughout the first half of the 20th century, these could feature places as mundane (for me) as Boston Harbor or what used to qualify as “faraway lands” (but now you can see them if you fly TWA!). I am sure I am not the first person to feel that by looking at carefully crafted images created dream locations repeatedly that I knew these places intimately.

But, I don’t; I only know a version of them.

While I still think that these posters are works of art, I also acknowledge that they are problematic in several important ways. If you try to condense bustling metropolises onto a 30″x40″ two dimensional surface, it will be inherently reductive-there is only so much you can show at a time.

No people, just ruins

The graphic designers chose the most well-recognized or enticing buildings and locations to show cities and countries to their “best advantage”. In order to entice visitors, they must show the most “non-domestic” facets of these countries-herein lies that slippery slope of appropriation rather than appreciation. True, these iconic landmarks do exist-there are architectural ruins in Beirut, golden domed mosques in Iraq, pagodas in Japan and the Eiffel Tower is indeed in France. But more often than not, the designers were interested in creating fantasy worlds catered to the American public than portraying them with authenticity. Usually, this will come in the form of appropriating costumes, customs or local aesthetics. These travel posters, though stylish, ultimately cater to the supposed desires of the Western traveler: either you would be traveling to a cultural center to enrich your existence or are stumbling upon the gems of antiquity, just waiting for you to rediscover them. In both cases, you are there for leisure; it isn’t really real-you’ll go, have your adventure and then come home and tell your friends all about it.

No people, just flowers

The more pressing problem lies in these dream places being so far removed from our everyday lives (by design) that we can forget the real people who live in these places, for whom these places are not an escape from the ordinary but the places that they work, play and live. They can and will be subject to the mundane and as we are seeing more-the tragic. Hanging posters or visiting them does not mean that we can truly know the city in all its glory, though it is a start. On the other side of the spectrum, the news images of places in the aftermath of great upheavals does not portray a complete picture-it too creates a narrative, just the opposite of what these posters aim to do. Our perception of these places is not necessarily false, but it is necessarily incomplete. Remembering this will be a constant process of reflection and self-awareness. We as visitors will always have limited insight into those worlds, but our hearts are with them and we must strive to imagine complexly and be more empathetic, today and everyday.

We send our thoughts to the people of Beirut, Paris, Baghdad, Syria and Kagoshima as well as Baltimore and Mizzou. There is much darkness in the world but also many instances of humanity and that gives us hope. 

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