The U.S. Postal Service was established in 1775 and for such a staple institution— so harmless in its aim—has seen its fair share of undue turbulence.
The last couple of years were marked by a pandemic fever pitch of economic distress, with many scrambling to salvage their jobs, businesses, and sense of sanity. Employment for many postal workers was in flux as the service struggled under mounting debt. There was an increase in revenue but not enough to cover $8.1 billion in total losses.
In 2020 the postal service saw an increase in package shipments but delays in deliveries, and under the new 10-year reform plan there are even more delays on the horizon, along with price hikes, and reduced operating hours.
Cost-saving measures will also include the closure and consolidation of post offices across the country, and there’s general anxiety that they will hit rural areas the hardest.
Rural post office closures signal more than the discontinuation of government service. It’s an end to voting by mail, an end to accessing necessities like medications, social security, and bill payments without broadband.
But for photographer Matt Barron, these are all things he’s seen and encountered before, documenting rural post offices across New England. All of his documentation has culminated in an exhibit in the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, Massachusetts.
Read our conversation below as Matt shares his passion for rural post offices—the big ones, the tiny ones, and the ones no longer with us.
Xandr Brown, The Daily Yonder: Let’s start at the beginning. Were you attracted to the camera for what the camera was, or did you always have the drive to capture architecture and the things around you, like post offices for example?
Matt Barron: I was given this 35mm camera when I was like eight or nine, and I just started carrying it everywhere. And both my parents were artists. And a friend of my father said, “Burn film.” Meaning, take a lot of pictures.
And the post office thing… we used to take these April vacations down through Virginia, and North Carolina, Tennessee. And we would stop at the different historical sites, like the national parks and battlefields. And that was when I first saw some of these funky post offices and started taking pictures of them. And then it just became a compulsion to try to find more. And before I had my driver’s license, I would look at maps and I would plot these routes where I thought they could yield some good ones.
Because there’s a lot of cookie-cutter [post offices]. There’s a lot of ones that are these little brick boxes that look the same. And I think the post office has a thing about how a building looks relative to the size of the community that it serves.
Whereas in the small rural communities, you have much more variation. You find them in people’s homes, they’re in general stores, they’re in old mills. And so part of the fun was driving these routes, going into the… “Where’s the post office? What does it look like? Is it…” And I had these very high standards of what I wanted to shoot. They just had to have these funky qualities, or [be] in a general store with really cool signage.
And then I had a dark room when I was in high school, so I could develop a lot of these pictures. Which was fun. I mean, everything’s digital now. So that just seems so in the past. But when we’re working with film, it’s so magical. You’re seeing that image appear through the developing fluid in the tray. And there it is.
DY: I think about how I grew up with understanding post offices as just a government facility.
MB: In rural communities, the post office is much more than a place to get stamps. It’s a social place. It’s a place where people meet, “How’s your garden? What’s the weather?” Like in my town. I’m in a town of 1,186 people, it’s one of the only bulletin boards in the community. There’s one in the town hall. There’s one at the general store. And there’s one at the post office. So it’s like this information sharing place. Where people put up a lost cat, or there’s going to be a band concert, or a town meeting warrant, and stuff. And so they take on the character of their communities. Like, where it’s in somebody’s house for years, it may be that that postmaster or postmistress lived there for years.
DY: A lot of your work is concentrated in New England. Is that just by your preference of scope?
MB: I don’t know if I could have built this collection outside of New England, because it’s one of the oldest parts of the country, and it has general stores. When you think of Vermont, you think of the general store with the cheese. If you look… I don’t know, in places like Utah or Nevada, they all kind of look the same. If you get into Alaska, you get into some of the little fishing ports, you get into more of what I’ve experienced in the Northeast. But it’s harder and harder now to find these. A lot of the ones I’ve taken and the ones that are in this exhibition that’s currently on, they’ve long since been discontinued. There have been waves of assaults against rural post offices.
DY: Because these post offices express so much, the approach is— not as an insult— [it] seems simple. For you, what makes a good photo?
MB: Well, it’s funny because I have maybe 200 of these in the collection, and for the show, I only selected maybe the best 34. And as I was going through them, I was looking at some and thought, I wouldn’t take that today. Like that wouldn’t meet my standards.
One of the things is the signage. If it had a nice sign, if it was carved in wood or nicely hand painted, or sometimes the way the sign was hung on the building. And some of them are so small. Like there’s one I have in, where is it? It’s in South Tamworth, New Hampshire. It looks like a dollhouse. It basically can fit one person inside when they go in. So these are these like unique characteristics that are not just brick, sort of with the flag pole and almost just cookie cutter, stamped out.
DY: Did you anticipate that there was going to be so much commotion surrounding post offices? And if so, how did that impact your work?
MB: Well, I’m in politics. And so I was aware as the decades were going by of these periodic assaults on rural post offices, by wanting to close them down and consolidate them. So, that was always in the back of my mind. It was like, “No, I have to get out there and document it.” What if it’s gone? For example, in New Hampshire, some of these really good ones existed until last year. I took several day trips and said, ‘I got to get these because who knows how long they’re going to be there.’ Now I have a digital camera, so I can just go home, upload to the computer, and there it is.
DY: The black and white ones, they look really, what is the word, antique. And then you have the newer ones that you can tell have been more digitized and processed. How has that affected your documentation?
MB: Well, I love black and white. I do miss the old days. I would get the film, I would open it up, and I would just read the little piece of paper that said cloudy, bright. And I just followed the directions. And most of the time it turned out well. I have a whole file of negatives, but I didn’t print as many as I just photographed and developed. So then when I did this exhibition, I first had to take all the negatives and have them digitized. And that took several months because there were other photographs in there as well.
I said I might as well just do it all at once. And they got put on thumb drives, and now they’re all digitized. So they did some photographic cosmetic surgery on some of them. Like one of them, I had cut off the point of the roof. He said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I put it back using Photoshop.” So now when it’s framed, it actually looks so much better.
DY: When did you know that you were going to make this an exhibition? Did you always know that was the end game?
MB: I always wanted to do it. And then back in March of 1999, my sister sent me an email and she said, “Hey, do you know this museum called the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History? That would be a great venue for a show.” So I kind of hung onto it. And after I got them digitized, I said, okay, now I’m ready to beat the bushes. And again, it’s hard because a lot of museums have a niche. Like it’s a World War II museum or it’s a farm museum, or it’s a modern art museum.
So who’s going to be interested in what I’m trying to show? And I contacted them in, I think it was late 2019, and I brought some of the prints and they said, “Oh, this is great. Yeah, we’re interested.” And then the pandemic hit and then they laid off their curator and they shut down, and how long is this going to go?
So then I reestablished contact and said I’m ready to do this. And so they said, okay. And they had brought on a new woman to be their special events coordinator. And she was fired up. So they gave me May, June, and July of this year. And it opened on May 8, 2022.
DY: This is a long time coming. In your photographer’s note, you say you wrote Republican Rep. Keith Sebelius back when you were in college about having an exhibit.
MB: I was a freshman in college.
DY: He was kind enough to write a brief response back to you.
MB: Yeah. Brief. There was an AP article and I think it ran in the Mass Daily Collegian, which is the college newspaper [at the] University of Massachusetts Amherst where I was a student at the time. And it was talking about rural communities bracing for like [a] wave of post office closures. And he was quoted. So I wrote him and he’s like, “I suggest you contact your state bicentennial commission.” And I carefully just filed the letter away.
He and a Congressman from Tennessee had helped at that time stave off these closures because the Arab oil embargo had hit and they were worried that the volume of mail was going to drop down. And if that came to pass, would they be stuck with these little post offices that were not bringing in any money? I mean, rural America is always on the receiving end of these kinds of threats because they don’t have the political power oftentimes of the larger areas. So they’re deemed expendable … If you live in rural America and you don’t live near a pharmacy and you don’t have the internet or you don’t have broadband, you really depend on the postal service to bring your medications and your magazines.
And a lot of Republicans have been trying to, well, especially under [President] Trump and his postmaster general, they’ve done horrific harm to this institution — which has served the nation very well since Benjamin Franklin thought it up way back — by hollowing out the supply chains, closing a lot of the mail processing facilities so that now it takes longer for a first-class letter to reach its end recipient. When I was growing up, you dropped a letter in the box and two days later it came to your friend. That doesn’t happen anymore.
DY: And your exhibition is more than timely. The report from the Government Accountability Office came out in 1975 and then we have another major one brought on by the pandemic. Did that shape your work in any way?
MB: I think a lot more people are aware of the changes that have been wrought. First of all, polls that have been done of Americans’ attitudes to the postal service routinely show that, in a nation that’s so bitterly divided and polarized, this institution has off-the-charts support, where for years, people have just taken it for granted. Now they’re becoming more aware of the fact that it’s changing and maybe not for the best. So I think there’s a greater level of awareness now.
And then earlier this year, there was a major law that [President] Biden signed that hopefully will turn things around because back in, I think it was ’06, the Republicans passed a law that burdened the post office by making them pre-fund their retirement like decades out into the future, which no other business had to deal with. And that was one of the reasons it began to lose money, that combined with the increased use of email. And so you had these two divergent problems. It was having to spend more money in the out years to pre-fund its retirees. And its revenue was going down because of increased use of email instead of snail mail. And this was putting a financial squeeze. Well, they got rid of that earlier this year. And that’s going to really do wonders long term to help bring the finances back into balance.
DY: I think I read you highlight in your photographer’s note, how when you don’t have a post office, it’s kind of like you’re erased, you’re cut off because if you’re trying to send somebody something, that place doesn’t exist.
MB: There are some places that don’t have post offices and they get their mail through the town. And this happens all over rural America. And it plays havoc with lots of people that are trying to compartmentalize who you are and where you are.
DY: And for you, what has the reception of your exhibition been?
MB: For years, people would travel and they’d say, “Hey, look at this one I found somewhere in Arkansas.” Which is very touching. Back on May 8, it was a good opening. I mean, it was Mother’s Day, but we still had a good crowd of people.
DY: And I want to know your thoughts on how powerful this medium is. Because then it’s not like you’re just a photographer, you’re clearly a historian, you’re at a cross-section of a lot of disciplines. So how do you see yourself within that paradigm?
MB: Yeah, a documentarian. I’ve always loved history. And I’m also going to have a show here at a local library in the next town over in April and May of next year. Because with gas prices going up, a lot of people said, “It’s only two hours away, but that’s a deal breaker now.” So people said, “It’d be great if you could have it closer to where we are.” So I said, okay. So that’ll be something to look forward to.
DY: And will this work ever be done? Do you plan on continuing to document?
MB: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of getting harder. I really feel fortunate that I grew up in this part of the country and the New England states are in such close proximity. I’ve never been to Alaska. I’d love to go visit some of the far-flung little fishing villages. Post offices take on the characteristics of where they are, like out west. Well, unlike in the seaside communities, you see these nice wood-shingled, little buildings with little shutters and they look like seaside cottages. They’re supposed to blend in. They’re not supposed to stick out like sore thumbs. In Florida, there are probably a lot of ones in ugly pastels, like sea foam green and pink, in places like Coral Springs. I think in the mountain west, Idaho, Wyoming, they probably take on those characteristics of those rugged mountain towns.
DY: My last question before we wrap up is, as you continue this exhibit and you continue documenting, what is it that you want people to take away from what they’re seeing?
MB: I guess an appreciation of the rurality of these small rural post offices, their uniqueness, the non-cookie cutter aspect. I think they’re very beloved in their communities. In the photographer’s notes, I made a reference to this article in the Boston Globe from, I think it was 1981, that was datelined in Bridport, Vermont, up in Lake Champlain river valley, and it said, “This is maybe the only place in the town that has the name of the town on it.” It was the post office. If that goes away, our identity goes away, because that’s the only place where it has our name.