PHOTOGRAPHY / Wish you were here: John Hindes' seductive 1950s picture postcards were brilliant illusions. Jane Richards looks back with hindsight

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There's one in every gift shop. A postcard depicting an impossibly idyllic scene in garish technicolour. Take this one, of a yellow-sanded beach, the azure sea twinkling on the horizon. In the foreground a fisherman dressed in an Aran sweater and matching bobble hat mends his nets, perched on the edge of his boat. And - by happy coincidence - three men, transporting a long boat over their heads, pass by in the near distance. This is Ireland - as seen by photographer John Hinde - in the 1950s.

It's a delicious piece of kitsch. Taken 40 years ago, this kind of postcard photography enjoyed a massive popularity in the post- war years when the British public longed to be shown a positive point of view, however outlandish. Hinde called it 'gilding the lily' - enhancing a picture to make it more seductive. He started producing postcards in 1956 when he recognised one vital factor: that people only want postcards to justify their choice of holiday location. The determination to prove to friends and family that they have enjoyed great weather and local charm far outweighs the desire for photographic truth.

'Hindesight: Photographs and Postcards 1935-1971, at the Royal Photographic Society, Bath', demonstrates the full measure of Hinde's skills. Born in Somerset in 1915, he took up photography in his teens and had set up his own London studio by 1940, when he began to explore colour photography and printing. After several years of illustrating colour books he turned to postcards, initially as a means of using his own travel photographs, and worked at improving the generally disappointing bland and washed-out colour processes available.

Colour was the key to his success. In the late 1950s, a new pop culture was starting to embrace bright colours as synonymous with freedom, choice and optimism. For Hinde, colour was literally a life-enhancing force. His artificial set-pieces were brilliant lies - colourful dreamscapes which suggested a better and more positive way of life - particularly holiday life. He managed to make holidaying at Butlins look like holidaying in the Bahamas.

But it was more than just colour enhancement that lent the pictures their supreme artificiality. Hinde's photographers worked to a strict compositional and colour formula. Joan Willis, a photographer from the Hinde stable, remembers the tools of her trade: 'I carried all the usual things around in the car with me, flowers and the like. I also carried a little hatchet so I could chop down gorse bushes and things like this, so I could move them from one side of the hill to another.' Witness her postcard depicting The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon- Avon - an idyllic waterside scene, the river startlingly blue, the foliage bright green. Some swans swim towards a party of young women on the river bank, while a youth rows past. But, says Willis, 'everything in the picture is contrived, the row boat was hired, the girls were co- opted from a picnic further down the river. I even had the purple flowers planted in there. Whoever saw delphiniums growing on a river bank?'

And the idyllic Aran fishing scene took some organising. As Hinde remembers: 'I said to the fisherman you've got to be wearing an Aran sweater. But nobody had an Aran sweater on Aran. Eventually they found one - miles too small and with a hole in it. So we arranged him in a sewing position just to cover up the smallness and the hole in the jumper. In the end it took a day and a half to get it right.' Such is real life.

Royal Photographic Society, Milsom Street, Bath (0225 462841), to 4 Apr

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