Credit where it’s due. How well does the United States Postal Service do portrait stamps?
It’s got a head start, being in America and all. With its entrepreneurial spirit, vibrant cultural scene, and comprehensive disenfranchisement of minorities, the USA is never short of an innovator, an envelope-pusher or a trailblazer to honour on a stamp.
Take the Maya Angelou stamp that’s out on April 7. No frills, just elegance and eloquence. A dignified tribute. I was gobsmacked to read that the image is that of a painting (!) – an oil-on-canvas number by Ross Rossin that resides in the National Portrait Gallery. Look at that face, and imagine the stories it could tell. Then go and read those stories.
Sticking with the literary theme, here’s the Ralph Ellison tribute from February 2014. The biggest compliment I can pay this stamp is that as someone not familiar with Ellison’s work, the stamp alone makes me want to look him up. That tenement streetscape call to mind a world to which other works of art have transported me in the past. Who was this guy? Imma find out. I reckon that if I hang out long enough in that late-night diner depicted in Edward Hooper’s painting Nighthawks, he’ll wander in and I can ask him all about himself. Have I insulted a major literary figure with cringeworthy romanticism enough yet? Probably.
Incidentally, this stamp was designed by Kadir Nelson (with Ethel Kessler). Regular readers may remember me creaming myself over Nelson’s fabulous Wilt Chamberlain issue back in January.
In May 2014 the USPS released this tribute to gay pioneer Harvey Milk, one of the first openly homosexual public officials in the US, assassinated in 1978. Even last year the release of the stamp was not without its tedious critics. What I like about this stamp is that they could have found a way to really gay it up, but they didn’t. The rainbow touch is there for symbolism; the rest is an just engaging photo portrait of a guy. The dominant black might have been chosen because it complemented the photo’s greys, but can we read into it an acknowledgement of mourning, of sorrow at the untimely death of a potential statesman?
Appealing to the other end of the political spectrum is the Charlton Heston stamp of April 2014. It’s a likeable portrait of Heston when he was still recognizably a Hollywood star and not a NRA nutter. There’s something old-school about this stamp that I quite like. Just like its subject, it’s classical, but outdated.
The ongoing Music Icon series has been spectacular. The USPS has not just been willing to recognize countercultural stars, but also to depict them in ways befitting their era. The squares who ran society in Harvey Milk’s day would be rolling in their graves to see their nation honour Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin like this in March and August 2014, respectively.
If you’re some sort of young person vaguely attracted to the idea of stamp collecting but bored by the traditional fascination with presidents and kings on stamps, chasing up these issues would be an excellent place to start. Try finding them used on commercial mail… there’s a challenge.
A personal highlight of mine from this series is the Johnny Cash stamp of June 2013. The messed-up master broods warily in our direction, as always the man in black.
My only problem with this release isn’t with what the USPS did, it’s with what it didn’t do. There’s a notorious photo of Cash rehearsing for his famous show at Folsom Prison. Photographer Jim Marshall called it “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.” For some stupid reason, the USPS overlooked this photo when designing this stamp. So in a first for the Punk Philatelist, I hereby submit my own design for consideration. Could there possibly be a better reason to rip off that photo one more time?
The USPS missed a golden sales opportunity with this one. Who wouldn’t want to stick THAT on a letter to the taxman?