The Enigmatic Postcard Series Identifying Mimicry

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Photography by Ben Toms

Ben Toms’ inaugural published personal project, a book of postcards highlighting imitation in the world around us, launches at San Francisco Art Book Fair this weekend

Pigmented, biomimetic versions of camouflage – regardless of how convincing or well adapted they appear – are still useless against predators that lack colour vision, or rely primarily on the non-visual senses for hunting.

If ever you’ve moved through an art gallery bookshop amassing works of art in miniature for 30p apiece, you’ll already be familiar with the poetic power of the postcard. It can be treasured for a lifetime, sent to a beloved friend, used as a secret note or a business card or left hidden in a shoebox for decades. Most crucially of all though, as photographer Ben Toms points out upon the release of his new series of 20 photo-postcards, it is a collaborative document, co-authored by the producer and the sender.

Toms’ series, named Untitled, is published by independent San Francisco-based bookshop Owl Cave Books, and launches at San Francisco Art Book Fair this weekend in a limited boxed edition of 100. Comprising images taken all around the world, from Kyoto and Sri Lanka to New Orleans and Cabazon, it falls somewhere between the realms of “documentary, nature, and architectural photography, souvenir postcards, and the mail art movement”, and served as a break from the norm for Toms, a long-established fashion photographer.

The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. was founded in 1937 to represent the interests of the plastic producing industry. Plastic bottles were first used commonly in 1947, but were expensive compared to their glass counterparts until the 1960s, when high-density polyethylene came into production, and in 1970 the first plastic bottles were used for soft drinks.

The common thread in the series? Adaptive mimicry – the bio-evolutionary mechanism by which organisms, usually animals, adopt physical traits of their environments. “There’s a picture in there of a pink and white insect on top of a bottle – that’s my praying mantis, or one of them, and that’s where the idea of mimicry came from,” Toms explains. “I have three at the moment but I’ve been keeping them for five years or so, and this one is an orchid mantis, so as it gets older it’s going to turn a very vibrant pink, and look like an orchid flower. And that, I guess, is where the interest in mimicry came from. In how a species or organism will evolve to look like something else, or resemble something within its environment as a means of survival.”

Outside of the mantis, this theme manifests in the series in Disney World columns veiled with canvas; a giant novelty building in the form of a dinosaur; an ornamental New Orleans house, shot in black and white against an overcast sky. But it’s especially interesting given the breadth of work Toms has created for fashion magazines, titles ranging from Dazed and AnOther Magazine to Luncheon and Vogue China. This being his inaugural published personal project, it presented an exciting opportunity to make work completely independently: “It is quite a funny thing, because you can do whatever you want!”

Entasis, ‘to stretch or strain tight,’ is a term used in architecture to describe the additional curve of a support structure or column that creates the illusion of greater strength or the perception of greater height, to correct the visual illusion to the eye of concavity created by a straight shaft.

The series is also the amalgamation of more than ten years of friendship between Toms and Brian and Vee Moran, the owners of Owl Cave Books and the writers responsible for the incisive art book-esque captions which accompany each of the images. “We first met through our mutual friend the artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, all working together on her performances,” Brian and Vee explain. “At that time Brian was showing at the same gallery as Marvin Gaye, and Vee was working at the ICA Bookshop. The performances were intense and collaborative and fun, and a lot of us really bonded and are still close friends.” When the pair moved to San Francisco to set up the store, sending postcards back and forth with Toms became a simple means of keeping in touch. “There’s something about postcards as objects that we’re all excited about,” Brian and Vee continue. “There are great possibilities to play with the relationship between words and images. Even though postcards are mass produced, they’re something you use to share a place or an experience with someone you wish was there.”

Most scissors are built for use with the right hand. Because scissors are built with overlapping blades, they are not symmetric: the blade that is on top always forms the diagonal, regardless of orientation. Some scissors are marketed as ambidextrous, but in truth the blade orientation will block the view of the cutting line for left-handed people. True ambidextrous scissors are possible if the blades are double-edged and one handle is swung all the way around to almost 360 degrees, so that the back of the blades become the new cutting edges.

The two famous ‘steamboat houses’ of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans were built by Captain Milton P. Doullut, and were inspired by both the steamboats that he piloted down the Mississippi River, and the Japanese exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Flooding was common when the homes were built, so the entire ground floor of each building is coated inside and out in ceramic tiles. Although badly flooded in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, both buildings survived.

The earliest known surviving stone mask dates to 7,000 BC and predates human use of ceramics, although masks made of more biodegradable plant and animal materials were certainly in use much earlier than this. The earliest known anthropomorphic stonework of a face was carved by a Neanderthal over 35,000 years ago.

Tapestry lawns, commonly referred to as ‘grass-free lawns,’ are composed of multiple mowing tolerant plant species grown together in place of common grass, resulting in the ‘tapestry’ effect. It is a way to apply ecological principles to lawn management, specifcally – but not limited to – less mowing, and allow greater numbers of both plant and animal species to inhabit the lawn.

Industrial melanism describes the adaptation of patterning and pigment by animals living in areas of high levels of pollution to better match their environment, and was first observed in moth populations of the industrial North of England in the early 1900s by geneticists and evolutionary biologists.

The Wardian case was a decorative sealed glass protective container for plants, which in the 19th century changed how specimens were transported overseas. Before this invention, the great majority of plants died from exposure during long sea voyages. The Wardian case was invented in 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868, London), and was the direct forerunner of the terrarium, the vivarium, and the aquarium.

The Apatosaurus, meaning ‘deceptive lizard,’ of the Cabazon Dinosaurs in Southern California. Sculptor Claude Bell began work on this series of monumental dinosaur shaped buildings in the mid 1960s. The site was sold after his death in the 1990s and now hosts a museum to promote Creationism, a set of Christian beliefs based on the rejection of the theory of Evolution, and the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, which usually place the age of the Earth as less than 10,000 years old.

Ben Toms, Untitled, launches this weekend at San Francisco Art Book Fair, published by Owl Cave Books.