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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Art of Postage Stamps

American photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Walker

Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ansel Adams all get their moment in the

spotlight this week as the United States Postal Service begins selling

"The Masters of American Photography," an attractive selection

of black-and-white postage stamp images — at the less than

attractive cost of 37 cents apiece.

For Peter C. Bunnell, Princeton University professor of the history

of photography, the postal price hike comes at the culmination of

a five-year research and design project — and it seems to be bringing

him a deluge of national attention. "I feel like some sort of

celebrity," says the photo historian in a phone interview from his

campus office. "They printed 10 million sheets and people are

sending them to me to autograph." Moving to emeritus status this

summer, Bunnell, who remains faculty curator of photography for the

University Art Museum, was busy trying to clear his office of 30 years

of accumulated stuff.

For an investment of $7.40, the 20 "Masters of American

Photography" are not only striking, they also provide a miniature

survey of the grand sweep of 120 years of American photography. Many

of the images on the stamp sheet will be familiar to visitors to the

Princeton University Art Museum and particularly to Bunnell’s annual

fall teaching show, "What Photographs Look Like," featuring

historic and contemporary photography gems from the permanent

collection he helped build.

Arranged chronologically on the sheet, with thumbnail histories on

the back of each stamp, the group begins with a portrait of American

statesman Daniel Webster by daguerreotypists Albert Southworth and

Josiah Hawes, who worked in Boston in the 1850s.

It moves on to turn-of-the-century social reformer Lewis Hine, art

photography of Alvin Coburn, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. Georgia

O’Keeffe’s hands photographed by Alfred Sieglitz, and images by

Gertrude Kasebier, James VanDerZee, and a cameraless

"Rayograph" by Man Ray are all represented by the series.

The series concludes with an image by Minor White, the influential

artist and teacher (Bunnell was among his students) who bequeathed his

archive to Princeton University at his death. White’s subtle landscape

photograph "Bristol, Vermont" of 1971 — an image of a road

under light snowfall that has melted to reveal a dynamic arrow —

is in the university’s permanent collection.

The bold, commemorative sheet is framed by an image made at Glacier

Point, California, around 1888 by frontier expedition photographer

William Henry Jackson, showing a photographer with a mammoth-plate

view camera balanced atop a huge boulder in Yosemite Valley.

Photographers Jackson, Carleton Watkins, and Timothy O’Sullivan —

all represented in the stamp series — all joined expeditions to

survey the American West after the Civil War. "These photographers

were exploring unknown and uncharted territory," says Bunnell, and

their images brought back — particularly to those in the East

— a visual awareness of what the country looked like." They

built awareness of natural treasures that would eventually be

protected by law.

The USPS stamp project began in 1996 and proceeded,

sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, to its last phase — the

curator’s notes on the back of each stamp — in summer, 2001.

Throughout the project, Bunnell worked closely with designer and art

director Derry Noyes of Washington, D.C.

"I chose the artists, and I was told the sheet would be 20

stamps," Bunnell explains. "It was a rather dramatic narrowing

down to photographers I thought made a major contribution to the

field." Choices had to be limited to photographers who had been

dead for 10 years or more which is why White, who died in 1976, is the

latest figure represented.

In order to create a sheet that worked as a whole and as individual

parts, Bunnell and Noyes limited their choices to vertical images.

"I would Xerox a half-dozen images by each photographer that I

was proposing and Derry then reduced them to postage stamp size,"

he says. "That was quite a revelation — when you reduce them

so drastically it became evident that a basic graphic quality would

be required."

The sheet is arranged chronologically and the image chosen for a given

photographer had to fit the chronology. "We constantly were moving

these around like a kind of chess board, and in a gradual process they

began to fall into place," he explains. The issue of rights to

reproduce works precipitated some late changes; each time a work

changed, the overall design of the sheet was adjusted to suit.

Lewis Hine is among the artists whose work had already been reproduced

on a stamp; one of his images of a child factory worker had appeared

on "Decades of the Century." "Because the postal service

had already used one of Hines’ child laborer images, we chose an

immigration picture by Hine," says Bunnell. The 1905 image of a

family searching for their lost baggage at Ellis Island dovetailed

nicely with the project’s goal to also use the stamps to illustrate

the evolution of American history. Moments from the Harlem

Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II all figure in the

succinct, 20-stamp sheet.

"I had never worked on anything like this and I was prepared to

accept my decisions and to accept that someone else would have made

somewhat different decisions," he says brightly.

Man Ray’s cameraless photogram posed its own challenge. Bunnell had

to persuade the USPS that the artist was in truth a photographer.

"Light is the essential element of photography and a camera comes

second," he says.

"In the past, the postal service has done American painting and

sculpture, bugs and birds, and everything else — but this is the

first time the government has recognized photography. As you can see

it worked out very beautifully." And we cheerfully agree.


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