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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Standing in the snow that frigid evening outside of the White House, Washington photographer Patricia Fisher knew she had only a few minutes to make the picture. It's not that she feared the Secret Service hassling her – she was standing outside the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue, just as thousands of other photographers have done hoping to make a nice snap of the President's House.

No, it was the light Pat feared. It was perfect. And it was vanishing.

"When it snows in Washington," Pat said, "it's rare that all the right conditions come together." Often in winter, the veteran stock and travel shooter noted, the sun can be too bright, making the edges of an image too hard or sharp. And snow itself – or at least the kind that creates a beautiful soft blanket of white that can create a timeless photograph – is a rarity in Washington.

That's why blizzard-like conditions in D.C. can bring a certain kind of photographer out onto the streets when sane people would be calling in sick and stoking the fire. Renowned D.C.-based shooter Fred Maroon knew that years ago when he lurched up to Capitol Hill around dawn after an all-night storm. The result was a wonderfully moody portrait of the Capitol. (Of course, Fred also made the classic picture of folks wandering up and down Wisconsin Avenue in a snow-bound Georgetown – an image that has been seen on posters, note cards and in books for years.)

So when Washington was hit by a good size dump of white a few years ago – and when the weather cooperated by creating a pleasant haze that acted like a benign diffusion filter – Pat Fisher put on her cold weather gear, grabbed her camera bag and tripod, and made a beeline to what she hoped would be a great image.

It turned out to be the image of a lifetime.

Pat's gorgeous photograph of the White House, a tranquil scene made just as evening fell, was selected last year by the U.S. Postal Service as the perfect photograph for the 33-cent postage stamp commemorating the Executive Mansion's bicentennial. One hundred and twenty-five million stamps were printed and Pat (as well as stamp designer, Derry Noyes, also of Washington) were invited to be part of special ceremonies marking the historic stamp's first day of issue, last October 18.

Speaking at the event, Hugh Sidey, president of the White House Historical Association, author and former White House reporter for Time, noted that, "On its 200th Birthday, the White House is the most important and renowned building in the world, symbol of liberty and hope to all people. When President John Adams moved into the new but yet unfinished building on November 1, 1800, few Americans realized he had planted an institution that would in the next two centuries become the most powerful and successful democracy in history."

It says something about Pat – whom I've known along with her photographer husband, Wayne, for more than a decade – that this unassuming photographer went to the ceremony fighting the nagging fear that she would look at the blowup of the new stamp and suddenly realize: "Omigosh, that's not my picture!"

But of course, it was. And how Pat got the shot provides an object lesson in how to get a unique image even when shooting a much-photographed icon like the White House.

The first thing is to have the right equipment and film in order to take advantage of the right conditions.

"It was a cloudy day right after the snow had fallen," Pat recalled. "You want the time when the ground perfectly mirrors the sky in the snow – a little window of less than five minutes.... On a clear day you just don't get the same feeling." A clear day, for example, would have changed the atmospherics and not given Pat the almost robin's egg blue tone of sky and snow. That glorious color was natural – not the product of post-production computer tweaking – and was there for the taking by the right photographer.

On that chill night, Pat was all alone.

She had set up her Canon camera and favorite 28mm-105mm lens on a tripod some time before the evening's "magic time." Her camera was loaded with Kodachrome 25 – a legendary fine-grain daylight-balanced slide film. Pat set her lens for maximum sharpness – around f.8. Then, after making reflected spotmeter readings off the sky, the snow and the lit exterior of the White House itself, bracketed exposures around a basic exposure time of 3 to 4 seconds.

Pat noted that her final picture worked so well because of a number of factors, all revolving around the theme of less being more.

First, the uniformity of the snow and sky focuses the eye directly on the beautiful contours of the Executive Mansion.

Second there are no clouds in the sky to distract the viewer.

Third, even though this is a winter scene, the White House Christmas decorations had not yet been put up, thereby making the image a more universal – not seasonal, or holiday-related – depiction of the White House.

Pat didn't set out to make a picture for a U.S. stamp. As she and her partner/husband, Wayne, have been doing for years, she simply wanted to update her stock photography files for her large archive in Folio Inc., a Washington-based stock house run by Susan Soroko. Only in this case, the updating had to do with the weather, not the skyline, since this view of the White House has been pretty much unchanged for decades.

In fact, Pat wasn't even aware at first that she was in the running for the honor of having one of her photos put on a U.S. stamp. In February 1999, the Postal Service, planning a stamp to mark the White House bicentennial the following year, issued a call for images of the White House in winter to the Washington-based photo research agency, PhotoAssist, which has had a long association with the Post Office for just such projects. Louis Plummer, one of the agency's directors, recalled that he and his staff "went to as many people as possible" to gather images because the Post Office: 1) Wanted to use an actual photograph for the stamp; and 2) Wanted the image to be made in winter, preferably in the snow.

Ultimately, PhotoAssist was able to come up with 300 images – from stock agencies like Folio, as well as from individual photographers, but it was Pat Fisher's image that postal officials kept coming back to. It was simple. It was a frontal view that would be easily recognizable on a postage stamp.

And of course, the light was perfect.

"I'm told it has become one of the most popular stamps in-house," Susan Soroko said. And that popularity has extended beyond the Postal Service, at least into the Washington area. In recent weeks, a number of local post offices have run out of the stamp, after many patrons apparently decided to use it for their holiday cards. (In fact, that's just what Judy and I did, long before we even knew our friend Pat had made the picture.)

Pat's original 35mm transparency is now safely back in Folio's files, the Postal Service having bought the rights to all stamp-related uses. That means that Pat and Folio still can sell the image for editorial and other commercial applications. In fact, Susan Soroko noted that the image had just come back after having been offered to a magazine planning an article on the presidential inaugural.

At last October's unveiling ceremony, Pat was asked to autograph First Day Covers of "her" stamp. But during the occasion, Pat also let it be known to the assembled government dignitaries that what she really would like to have was a First Day Cover of the stamp autographed "by the current occupant of the White House."

And that's how shortly thereafter Pat Fisher received one of the, if not the only, First Day Cover of the White House 200th Anniversary Commemorative Stamp autographed by Bill Clinton.

I wonder if George W. would be interested in signing it too.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Pat Fisher Stamp
©1999 USPS
Pat Fisher's eloquent portrait of the White House in winter graces commemorative stamp marking bicentennial of Executive Mansion.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

Stephen King, Photography Teacher

Pulitzer Pictures: Capturing the Moment

Extending the Holidays

Sheila Metzner's Platinum New York

Point N' Shoots Revisted

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