ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Okay, now suppose you're walking along a sidewalk. You come upon a hand-written stamped postcard. It's lying writing-side up on the ground. Do you pick it up? Do you drop it in a mailbox? Do you read the note?
In New Orleans, amateur photographer Justin Lundgren has created an art project that explores this scenario. Adam Burke has our story.
ADAM BURKE reporting:
Last year, in the months before Hurricane Katrina, Justin Lundgren devised an art project he hoped would reveal something about the morality of pedestrians, at least when it comes to lost mail. He chose 33 of his own colorful photos taken at Mardi Gras and other New Orleans events, and had the images printed professionally on postcards, three of each, for a total of 99. Then he took out a pen.
Mr. JUSTIN LUNDGREN (Amateur Photographer): For each image I wrote a story. Just a fictitious story. Some of them actually have a basis in reality, but most of them are just plucked from the air. Each starts with greetings from New Orleans.
Unidentified Woman #1: Greetings from New Orleans.
Unidentified Man #1: Greetings from New Orleans.
Unidentified Man #2: Greetings from New Orleans.
Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, Vicki. Greetings from New Orleans. Kev and I are having a lazy great time in New Orleans. We've only left our hotel once, a midnight munchie run (unintelligible) for a burger. The food at the Windsor Court was great.
Mr. LUNDGREN: I tried to generate images and storylines that would have value in one way or the other, negative value, positive value, but that would get a response.
Unidentified Woman #3: What kind of person puts the moves on his girlfriend's mother? You thought your little episode...
Mr. LUNDGREN: And then I went all over New Orleans and just dropped them on the streets. I put them in cafes. I put them on park benches.
Unidentified Man #3: Hey Sis, I used to think New Orleans was a little rough around the edges, but after six months in Baghdad, this place seems like Switzerland. Even the projects look relatively clean...
BURKE: Lundgren's main question was, how many of the 99 cards, if any, would make it to his parents' house in Ohio, which is where they were addressed. He also wondered which ones would provoke the most sympathy. But even as he scattered them across the city, he could see that lost postcards were awkward ethical terrain for many a pedestrian.
Mr. LUNDGREN: On several occasions, I would put a card down, walk 50 feet away and just watch.
BURKE: After he left one, writing-side up on a café table, he watched as a number of passersby scrutinized the thing with their eyes.
Mr. LUNDGREN: But many people wouldn't even touch it. And I think not so much because it was dirty or they perceived it was dirty, I think the moment you lay your hands on it, you're responsible for it.
BURKE: And then there was the time Lundgren bought some lunch at a well-known sandwich shop in the French Quarter, dropped a card on the sidewalk outside, and waited.
Mr. LUNDGREN: Two women walked by and one stooped down and picked it up, and I got up with my sandwich and I started following them. I just walked 20 feet behind them. And this was a card about a bachelorette party...
Unidentified Woman #4: Cathy, greetings from New Orleans. Sarah got pretty wild last night at her bachelorette party. She must have smooched 15 guys on Bourbon Street. And the debauchery continues tonight.
Mr. LUNDGREN: And I do remember following these two women, close enough that I could hear the conversation. And they were just giggling, laughing. They just thought it was hilarious.
Unidentified Woman #4: We secretly hired the Cajondale Dancers to do a private show for her at the Fairmont. Should be a great send off to a life of monotony. I mean monogamy.
Mr. LUNDGREN: We walked about two or three blocks, and at the end of that span there was a mailbox, and I actually saw them put it in the mailbox. And I recall one of the women saying, boy, maybe we should show up to that party tonight.
BURKE: In all, 53 of the 99 cards showed up in his parent's mailbox. And though Lundgren admits that none of this is scientific, he says the card returns are a kind of moral acid test. Remember, he'd created three copies of 33 different image/story combinations. And some fared better than others.
None of the images with the man in a bondage mask were mailed, for example. And the storylines appeared to work the same way.
Mr. LUNDGREN: I mean, if you look at the ones that went three-for-three, many of them were quite innocent, you know. Mailing recipes to a relative. Or you know, a father mailing a joke to his child. You know, really sweet, saccharine messages. One of the cards that had no returns, the tone of the card, the storyline implies that a crime is about to be committed.
Unidentified Man #4: Ted, greetings from New Orleans. I got the code from Slidell Billy. 7-24-19-4. You'll find the box in a floor space to the right of the old man's armoire. He should be gone to Florida on Friday. If all goes well, I'll see you in Point Alahatch(ph) to divvy things up. Good luck, and be discreet, George.
Mr. LUNDGREN: When I look at it now, I'm like, it's so ridiculous. Be discreet. Here the guy's writing a postcard about it, but you have to ask yourself, you know, if you picked up that card, do you want to do this person a favor?
BURKE: The answer, presumably, is no, since no one aided George by mailing his missive along with the lockbox combination. But then again, the lost postcards weren't only subjected to the moral calculus of strangers. Some might have blown into the gutter or been mistaken for trash. Others might have been kept by people who just liked the photo.
And it's this mysterious inner world of the project that stretches it beyond a candid camera stunt into the realm of conceptual art. It's fascinating stuff, particularly for Justin Lundgren, who's received enough encouragement to consider doing the whole thing again.
Mr. LUNDGREN: You know, the project came off well enough that I was like, I should do this in New York, I should do this San Francisco, I should do this in Detroit. But I have a full-time job, so...
BURKE: Greetings from New Orleans is on exhibit at the city's Contemporary Arts Center through this July. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.
CHADWICK: And you can see some of the Greetings from New Orleans postcards and link to the project Web site by going to our Web site: npr.org. And thank you to the Flea Circus Actors Guild in Paonia, Colorado.
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