A bestselling postcard photographer has seen enough of the city.The Arts May 27, 2019
Konstantino Hatzisarros wanted to go back to Greece. It was his third year in New York, the longest he had ever been away from home. He had finished grad school and was helping his uncle Alex Karas with his real estate business. Life was great, but something was amiss. New York wasn’t home.
In 1995 though, making a trip back to Greece wasn’t easy. Hatzisarros had evaded forceful conscription into the Hellenic Army by coming to the United States in 1992, and his Greek passport was expired. Entering Greece at a policed border would have landed him in trouble. But home was calling. Something had to be done.
He flew to Turkey where five childhood friends arrived in a sailboat to collect him. They were familiar with Aegean waters and had done this before. Nothing could have possibly gone wrong.
With a Turkish flag on the vessel, they sailed in the direction of Kastellorizo, the smallest Dodecanese island approximately a mile from Turkey. As they neared the island, they unsnapped the Ottoman crescent-star from the halyard and replaced it with the Greek flag, which combines the blue of the skies and white of the wave crests. Someone passed around tequila to help calm nerves.
On the quay they saw a middle-aged man calling out emphatically to them. For a moment, Hatzisarros’s heart froze. He thought the adventure was all but over. As it turned out, the man was merely advertising his taverna.
As soon as they docked, Hatzisarros hurried to a payphone to call his mom in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. She was delighted to hear her son’s voice, but forced him to go back to the United States and not risk his safety. His heart was broken as he returned to the America.
More than two decades have passed since he started what became an unexpectedly successful career in photography. Hatzisarros makes quixotic postcards of New York’s iconic landmarks and high-rises, blinding lights, and quiet riverfronts.
Postcard sales have been declining for years. Despite that, Hatzisarros has sold millions of them. The U.S. Postal Service reported that in 2017 a historic low of 671 million postcards and stamped cards were sent via first-class mail, however, Hatzisarros is selling more cards now than he ever was. “I thought the postcard business died around 2000. But I am doing much better than I was back then,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Hatzisarros’s postcards are primarily targeted at the more than 65.2 million tourists pouring into the city every year. Some of the money they spend in the city—a whopping $44 billion in 2018—certainly goes into buying mementos, as the charmed visitors want to keep a piece of the city of their dreams. Hatzisarros has come to understand that sentiment over the years.
Shortly after his return from Kastellorizo, he had stumbled upon postcards of the East Village at a deli on Avenue A. “I thought I can do this too,” he recalls. He charged $1,200 on his credit card and printed 8,000 postcards of four East Village pictures he had taken on his Konica Autoreflex TC. He convinced the man at the counter, Muhammad, to put them on display. When he returned a week later, Muhammad had $7.50 in cash waiting for him. Hatzisarros then went from store to store in SoHo, reasoning with shopkeepers and leaving display stands with them. Demand barely rose for a few years, but he kept at it. In 2000, he received an order from Barnes and Noble, America’s largest bookseller, and his business took flight.
With money now trickling in, Hatzisarros started taking aerial shots of the city’s skyline. To cut costs and work around New York’s flying regulations, he teamed up with a pilot in White Plains and has since flown on several photographic missions around Midtown. “This one shot I wanted to take of the Empire State and Chrysler together. This one fucking shot,” he recalls excitedly. “We had to go around them maybe seven times, asking nearby airports for permission each time.” Today, these aerial shots are his best seller.
While Hatzisarros admires photographers such as Steve McCurry who took the famous “Afghan Girl” portrait, he believes photo manipulation might be a distortion of reality intolerable in journalism. That said, in art it opens a whole new world of possibilities. Perhaps that is why he himself edits his postcard images heavily, sometimes merging several shots into one. “This is one of my new bestsellers,” he says, reaching for a photograph of Times Square on his desk. “When it comes to capturing light there, it gets a little tricky. So I took some 500 pictures with different camera settings and merged 30 of them into this.” Taken from the red steps behind Father Duffy’s statue, the picture shows a crowd of people and several taxis in motion under the watchful eye of neon signs and an illuminated sky – all perfectly exposed.
Today, after much trial and error, Hatzisarros has managed to put together a collection of around 150 popular cards that are produced in Maine and shipped to New York. His company, Psaris Productions, is named after his childhood sobriquet, a corruption of Hatzisarros that means fish in Greek.
Raj Aswani, his sales agent for more than 10 years, ensures the smooth running of the business’ supply chain. She takes note of new orders from bookstores and delis, which are then distributed by mail. Each card sells for an average price of 89 cents. Hatzisarros’s 2013 tax returns reported an annual income of $288,000.
“For him to be able to sell this many cards is huge. He is a very lucky guy, probably the most successful in the city,” says Roderick Kennedy, a postcard enthusiast who has published three books on deltiology, the study and collection of postcards. One of his books documents change in New York through the eyes of postcards.
Private postage has its origins in the prewar urbanization of Europe. As printing and photography technologies evolved, postcards started to gain popularity in the United States.
In 1861 the Philadelphian John P. Charlton copyrighted the first privately produced postcard in America. However, it still cost an arm and a leg to send privately printed cards, as they had to compete with government-made cards that could be posted cheaper. It took Congress another 37 years to allow privately printed cards to be mailed at standard postcard rates. The new legislation meant the private printing industry could finally compete with the government’s own postcards, giving birth to the American postcard mania. In 1906 alone, over 770 million postcards were mailed in the United States, when the country’s total population was less than 86 million. “Postcards were actually the first Twitter,” says Kennedy, who is also President of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City that claims to be the oldest-running such club in the country. “Those who didn’t have time to write letters, sent postcards.”
The rising postcard mania was soon faced with vehement condemnation. In an essay for The American Magazine published in 1906, John Walker Harrington coined the term “postal carditis,” which he defined as a formidable epidemic wreaking havoc in the United States. “The germs of these maladies, brought to this country in the baggage of tourists and immigrants, escaped quarantined regulations, and were propagated with amazing rapidity,” he wrote.
Like it is with resistance toward most technological advancements, the argument against postcards was that they were stifling the art of letter writing. “It was the original idea of the souvenir postal card inventors to show that the sender was staying somewhere and was too indolent to say anything about it except to convey the intelligence that he had arrived,” Harrington wrote.
The turn of the 20th century was also when the technology of photography was improving and thus the debate around its qualification as art was already happening. Some felt photography had killed painting. Others argued that it was the new frontier of visual culture. The approval and appreciation for postcard photography, though, was never emphatic. “Serious photographers mostly look down upon this kind of thing,” says the contemporary photojournalist Alan Chin.
Hatzisarros, whose travel photographs from Myanmar and India have bagged awards from National Geographic magazine, is unfazed by such criticism. “I am halfway creative and halfway business-minded,” he says. “Most of the time I am just running my business.”
Notwithstanding the criticism, postcards have been the forerunners of modern popular culture in many ways. “There was a time when it was said, ‘If it’s not on a postcard, it doesn’t exist’,” says Kennedy, who himself owns about 25,000 of them, arranged neatly in translucent plastic boxes at his Midtown apartment. “They’re like miniature works of art that you can own. And you get hooked to them.”
Over the years, Hatzisarros’s enthusiasm has diminished. He no longer takes to the streets with a camera when snow falls in Lower Manhattan or when the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus is transporting elephants via The Queens-Midtown Tunnel. New York has let him down. In the words of the essayist Susan Sontag, the camera has made him a tourist in his own reality.
Alex Karas, the uncle who had bought Hatzisarros the Konica Autoreflex TC and taken care of him when he first arrived in the city, lost his fortune to a business partner, and his second wife left him. Today at 78, he bides his time at Castle Senior Living in Queens. Hatzisarros tries to visit him every so often, sometimes taking him out for dinner. He is disheartened to see how Karas ended up. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to grow old here,” Hatzisarros says.
Twenty-five years and over four million postcards sales later, Hatzisarros wants to go back to Greece. It won’t be as difficult this time since the Greek army is no longer interested in him.
He wants to become Psaris, once again. This time for good.
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