American Photo Masters Honored With Special Stamp Issue
Which 20 Would You Have Chosen

What do Harry Houdini, bats, Duke Kahanamoku, teddy bears, and the Masters of American Photography have in common? All will be honored this year with special philatelic releases by the United States Postal Service (USPS). The photo masters release, first in a new USPS series called the Classic Collection, became available June 13. This is the first honor of this magnitude bestowed on photography by the USPS. There was a 15-cent "Photography" stamp issued in 1978. And George Eastman was honored in 1954 with a three-center.

The 20-stamp "pane" honors 22 photographers--some of them icons whose names are known even to those marginally familiar with the history of photography. Others are less well-known, but are photographic masters nonetheless.

The photos are presented chronologically. Dates and titles of the photos and some information about the photographers are provided on the back of the sheet.

Selecting The Masters
According to the USPS, the process for selecting stamp subjects is an arduous one. A 15-member Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) winnows thousands of suggestions from the public each year. There is a long list of selection criteria--including one that honorees must have been deceased at least 10 years before the stamp or stamp series is issued. Generally, CSAC tries to come up with annual stamp programs that are varied, educational, and appeal to non-collectors and collectors alike. It apparently takes about three years from the time a subject is selected until it goes on sale.

One of the numerous suggestions received by CSAC several years ago was to honor Ansel Adams in 2002 on the 100th anniversary of his birthday. The committee decided, instead, to honor photography and American photographers more broadly.

The USPS says that photos for the Masters of American Photography series offer a visual sampling of the history and development of photography and illustrate the changes in American culture and society.

Photographic historian Peter C. Bunnell, Princeton University, assisted CSAC in the selection process. "It is an extremely difficult task to bring the whole history of American photography down to 20 photographs. In most cases where there were comparisons to make, it was a personal choice as to the better or more significant photographer. Selection of specific photographs from a photographer's work that I felt was outstanding was based, in part, on how the image would relate to others on the pane. Also, we were interested in a mix of subjects--portrait, landscape, architecture, still life, etc.," Bunnell said.

For those not well versed in the history of American photography, here are snapshots of the photographers and their contributions.

Albert Sands Southworth (1811-1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808-1901) were Boston daguerrotypists whose partnership lasted from 1843-1862. They are widely considered to be the first great masters of American photography. In 1999, 240 previously unknown Southworth and Hawes plates sold at Sotheby's in New York for more than $3 million. Photo: A portrait of Senator Daniel Webster, c.1850.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882) learned photography in Mathew Brady's Washington daguerrotype studio in the late 1850s. Brady then recruited him to join the Civil War photography effort he funded and organized. O'Sullivan and another of Brady's photographers, however, soon went off on their own following a bitter disagreement over who would get credit for photos taken while in Brady's employ. After the war, he went on to work for several government-sponsored surveys of the American West, producing the superb landscapes of the often bleak and awe-inspiring country they traversed. Photo: General Ulysses S. Grant and his officers on May 21, 1864.

Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) was an early California photographer who went West with the Gold Rush. In 1857 Watkins set up a studio for portrait and landscape work in San Francisco. Each summer he traveled throughout California and the Far West, making some of the first photos of Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Franciscan missions. Much of his later work also included stereoscopic views. Watkins' entire collection of negatives was destroyed in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. He never fully recovered from this shock and died in a state hospital in 1916. Photo: "Cape Horn," Columbia River, 1867.

William Henry Jackson(1843-1942), or one of his assistants, made the selvage photo on the pane. Jackson photographed remote western areas and was one of the first to document what is now Yellowstone Park. In fact, his photos of the area are credited with moving Congress, without a dissenting vote, to establish the park in 1872. Photo: "Glacier Point," Yosemite Valley, c.1888, made by Jackson or one of his assistants.

Gertrude Ksebier (1852-1934) was an early member of "Photo-Secession," the movement founded by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902. Her work was exhibited and published by Stieglitz and is in the prevailing soft-focus pictorialist mode of the time. Her best-known images show mothers and daughters in interior and garden settings, often illustrating their relationships. Photo: "Blessed Art Among Women," a portrait of author Agnes Rand Lee and her daughter Peggy, 1899.

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) was a social reformer who started making photographs at age 37 to support his campaigns. In 1904, he photographed the treatment of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and their terrible living conditions. He then became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and documented children working in mills, mines, and on the streets as part of a campaign that eventually led to strict child labor and workers' safety laws. Photo: "Looking for Baggage," Ellis Island, 1905.

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was another member of the Photo-Secessionist movement. Coburn utilized soft-focus techniques, unusual perspectives, and abstract compositions. He took up photography as a boy in Boston and had his first exhibition at age 15. In 1900, he went to England and is actually best known for his work there. He later experimented with new approaches, including the development of the Cubist-inspired "Vorticism" movement--photos using mirrors producing kaleidoscopic images. Photo: "The Octopus," 1912, made by looking down on Madison Square Park from atop a Manhattan skyscraper.

Edward (Edouard) Steichen (1879-1973) originally trained as a lithographer and later studied painting in Paris. He started making photographs in 1896, attracted the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, and became involved in the Photo-Secessionist movement. He helped Stieglitz with his gallery and Camera Work magazine. Steichen went on to become chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. After World War II, he became director of the photography department of New York's Museum of Modern Art where he organized the popular and influential "Family of Man" exhibit. Photo: "Lotus," Mt. Kisco, New York, 1915.

Alfred Stieglitz was born in America, but sent to Germany to complete his education. There he took up photography. On his return, Stieglitz promoted the new photography he had seen in Europe, and, in particular, the work of some of his American colleagues--Ksebier, Coburn, Steichen, and Strand, for example. He called the movement "Photo-Secession." The group's stated goal was to "hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography€to exhibit the best that has been accomplished by its members or other photographers, and, above all, to dignify that profession until recently looked upon as a trade." From 1903-1917, Photo-Secession published the influential magazine, Camera Work. In 1905 Stieglitz founded Gallery 291 on New York's Fifth Avenue, for years a hotbed of photographic innovation. The gallery also helped promote modern art in America, offering the first exhibitions aof Cezanne and Picasso. Photo: "Hands and Thimble," 1920, one of over 300 images Stieglitz made of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky or Rudnitsky) (1890-1976) was an artist who worked in all media and expanded the limits of photography with innovations such as camera-less images he called "rayographs" (photograms) made by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing the arrangement to light. Photo: "Rayograph," 1921.

Edward Weston (1886-1958) was an early proponent of the unmanipulated, sharp-focused realism of "straight" photography. His photographic legacy includes several thousand carefully composed, superbly printed images--natural-form close-ups, nudes, and landscapes--that have influenced photographers around the world. In 1934, Weston, along with Ansel Adams, was a founding member of the f/64 Group of purist photographers. Photo: "Two Shells," 1927.

James VanDerZee (1886-1983) was the pre-eminent African-American photographer in New York City between the two World Wars. Commissioned by celebrities, ordinary citizens, and organizations, his formal portraits and group pictures captured the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance. Photo: "My Corsage," 1931.

Dorthea Lange (1895-1965) was a deeply compassionate photographer best known for her compelling pictures of the unemployed and uprooted victims of the Great Depression. With an empathetic eye, she recorded not only their impoverished circumstances, but also their fortitude and spirit. Her photo, "Migrant Mother," made while working as a photographer for the Farm Service Administration (FSA), stands as the best-known visual icon of the era. Photo: "Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California," 1935.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) found beauty in the commonplace and turned documentary photography into an art form. Evans had wanted to be a writer and, following in the footsteps of many aspiring writers of the period, went to Paris to try to master the trade. While in Paris, he picked up a camera and quickly decided that photography was his calling. Like Lange, Evans is best known for his work for the FSA during the Depression. Photo: From the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1936.

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) is highly respected for his compassionate photo essays. As a free-lancer and Life staff photographer, Smith photographed the Depression, was seriously wounded covering World War II, and, after the war, went on to produce great photo essays for Life that were to define the meaning of the term. Among these essays were "Country Doctor," "Spanish Village," and "Man of Mercy" (about Albert Schweitzer). Photo: "Frontline Soldier with Canteen, Saipan," 1944.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) was a student of reformer-photographer Lewis Wickes Hine. Hine took his students to see the work at Stieglitz's Gallery 291 and this had an overwhelming effect on the young Strand. He and Stieglitz became friends, but Strand was the first photographer to make a decisive break with pictorialism and apply some of the lessons of the new modern art to photography. His modernist compositional style emphasized form, light, and space. Photo: "Steeple," 1946.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is probably the best-known photographer in the world. He applied a clean and unmanipulated "precisionist" approach to the photography of the wilder and more beautiful aspects of the American West. With Edward Weston, he was a founder of Group f/64. Adams felt deeply about the need to conserve our natural heritage and used photography to campaign for it. In photographic circles, he is almost as well-known for his technical contributions as his images. Adams systematized the processes of exposure and development--the Zone System--enabling him to predict and control the appearance of a print before making the exposure, a technique he called "previsualization." Photo: "Sand Dunes, Sunrise," 1944.

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) departed from her early romantic pictorial style when, in the 1920s, she began making sharply focused, realistic images. The California photographer was a charter member, along with Weston and Adams, of Group f/64. She is best known for plant studies and portraits. Photo: "Age and Its Symbols,"1958, a portrait of Ida C. Pabst.

Andr Kertsz (1894-1985) was born in Hungary and went to Paris in 1925 to try to earn a living with his camera. There he "discovered" the Leica and, with this new "miniature" camera, photographed small happenings and events on the streets, producing balanced yet spontaneous compositions that often gave subjects new meaning. His work became well-known and was an inspiration for French photographers Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. Immigrating to the US in 1936, he settled in New York where he earned his living photographing architecture and interiors for magazines such as House and Garden. Kertsz's earlier work, not well received at the time, enjoyed a revival in the 1960s with the increasing interest in photography as art. Photo: "New York," 1963.

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), like Andr Kertsz, did most of his best work on the streets with a Leica. His work exemplified the "street photography" genre, shooting quickly but precisely and displaying a genuine interest in his subjects. Winogrand wrote: "I like to think of photography as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best--describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it." Photo: "Untitled," 1965.

Minor White (1908-1976) was an innovative photographer intent on conveying deep personal feelings through his work. He excelled in using symbolic representation and was committed to the spiritual as well as the sacred in art. White taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts, headed by Ansel Adams. He co-founded Aperture magazine in 1952 and edited the publication until 1975. Photo: "Bristol, Vermont," 1971.

The Masters of American Photography collection was officially issued at a public observance, called the First Day of Issuance Ceremony, held June 13 at the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego. According to a USPS spokesperson, one reason this site was chosen was to tie the ceremony into an exhibition at MOPA, June 9-August 25, of 110 images by Alfred Stieglitz, work given to George Eastman House by his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.

And What Happened To Mathew Brady?

Perhaps conspicuous by his absence in the stamp release is Mathew Brady. Not only was Brady the best known daguerrotypist of the period, he went on to bankroll and organize the first major effort at photo documentation on a grand scale--"coverage" of the Civil War.

From the Battle of Bull Run to war's end in 1865, Brady and his photographers produced many thousands of images under the most difficult conditions. Brady's enterprise, however, was not without controversy. Several photographers--including Timothy H. O'Sullivan--left his employ because Brady apparently would not allow them to take credit for images they were making. At the end of the war, the public was so traumatized by the national cataclysm that few wanted to view the images and Brady was unable to recover his investment, estimated at $100,000. The War Department refused to buy his plates and they were put into storage where they slowly deteriorated. Put up for auction in 1871 to pay the storage expenses, the government purchased them and gave Brady $25,000 for his work.

Brady survived his battlefield experiences, but was seriously injured later by a horse-drawn streetcar in Washington. He died in poverty in 1896, unrecognized at the time for his contribution.

Photography historian Peter C. Bunnell, consultant to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, said he recommended Boston daguerrotypists Southworth and Hawes because he felt they were better photographers. And he selected the O'Sullivan image because "there is no way to know which Civil War photographs were actually made by Brady."

What do you think of the Postal Service's selections? Who would you have picked? Drop us a line at and we'll publish "Shutterbug" readers' Top 20 in a later issue.