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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
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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