Why I Take Pictures of Mailboxes

I am sometimes asked why I took a certain picture, and often I don’t have a very good answer. It usually takes me a while to understand what I initially saw in a scene or an object or a person to warrant stopping and making a picture. And it takes even longer to know if I did a good job translating everything I found interesting there into the flat, colorful rectangle on my computer screen. Some pictures are easier to understand than others, but almost all of them take work. Almost all of them. The few pictures that I never have to think about, the ones for which I can always and immediately explain the why and the how, and the images that I find myself constantly remaking and returning to, are my pictures of mailboxes.

I don’t want to make a one-to-one comparison between photography and food, but pictures of mailboxes are my “comfort food” photos - easy, uncomplicated, delicious, and usually somewhat nostalgic. This isn’t to say that all comfort food is easy to make (God knows I still can’t make a good meatloaf) but there is a certain simplicity to the food I find most comforting. There isn’t a lot of cleanup, no hard-to-source esoteric ingredients, and the recipe with all of the measurements and instructions can fit on one side of an index card. I find taking pictures of mailboxes just as simple. They’re pretty much everywhere (especially walking around the suburbs), they don’t move around much, and they’re actually quite photogenic. Mailboxes fit well in a vertical frame, sit separated from any distracting elements in the background, and are made of shapes that lend themselves to a good picture (the hard-edge rectangle, the swooping arch). Pictures of mailboxes even title themselves - there's no better signifier than the name of a family or number of a house stamped right into the thin metal. And so I take pictures of mailboxes because it is easy to take a good picture of a mailbox, and to take lots of them. But that isn’t really why I love pictures of mailboxes.

I’ve always been drawn to mailboxes for what they say about their owners. Sure, most mailboxes are bought at Home Depot and never considered again. But some mailboxes, and I’m sure everyone can think back to a few of these, were made with real care and attention. Homemade and customized mailboxes are sculptures that tell a story about the person living at that address. The interesting mailbox says something about whoever lives in that specific house, and I find these public displays of creative selfhood fascinating. Even better are the ancient mailboxes with jury-rigged repairs and visible patches, a sign of the owner’s ingenuity and determination to never buy another new mailbox. To me, taking a photo of a mailbox is as close to taking someone’s portrait as you can get without having the person in the picture. 

And I could go on - I’ve thought often about the mailbox as a symbol for our collective trust and appreciation of our amazing postal system, and I’ve thought about the irony in the fact that no one actually owns their mailbox (the inside of every mailbox is technically the property of the United States Federal Government, and government agents called Postal Inspectors are authorized to enforce any tampering with this property). And I can't ignore the hint of nostalgia in my love for mailboxes, reminding me of the neighborhood I grew up walking and riding my bike through. There are really countless reasons why I take pictures of mailboxes, most of which I have come up with while staring at the now hundreds of images in my collection. I’ve listed here the reasons that seem the most important, and I’ll spare you the rest.

I’ll end by recommending everyone find their own “mailbox” -  something out in the everyday world that you can look at and through close observation learn something about a stranger. Outward displays of personal creativity like this are pretty much everywhere; cars, gardens, front stoops, tote bags, graphic t-shirts. It can really be anything. The trick is to look close enough and often enough so as to notice the differences, to see which of these certain things are crafted with real intention and love, and to craft your own compassionate story about why a person might express themselves in such a way. For me at least, this process helps in understanding, relating to, and respecting the people around me, even if I will never meet them. Painting a mailbox to look like a cow barn takes quite a bit of creative energy, and I will always want to celebrate that.

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