Only around 25 images find their way onto a postal stamp every year out of around 40,000 pitches sent to the U.S. Postal Service — so when photographer Norbert Wu was deep in a shark cage surrounded by Great Whites, a stamp image probably wasn’t on his mind. Wu’s photograph, however, was the inspiration for an entire set of Forever Stamps launched this summer. The set was crafted by artist Sam Weber, based on Wu’s image as well as other shark photos.
Wu was leading a group off of Guadalupe Island in Mexico, a trip that, up until that point, hadn’t resulted in many shots. As the sharks approached the cage on the last day of the trip, the group of photographers all pushed to one side. To capture a close view and get a shot without disrupting the rest of the group, Wu actually laid on his stomach in the shark cage and shot up at the approaching Great White — an angle that both showcased the shark’s teeth and captured the rays of the evening sun streaming through the water.
“As a long-time underwater photographer, I had a sense that I had gotten ‘the shot.’” Wu said. “I had a gut feeling that the sun rays, the shark’s angle, and its proximity had all come together to create a memorable image. Sure enough, this image always jumps out from my other great white shark images as a special one.”
Wu used a Nikon D200 and 16 mm lens — a set-up that was rather cutting edge considering the shot was snapped back in 2006. (The process of designing a postage stamp often starts several years before the stamp is actually issued, the Postal Service says.) The gear was set up inside a Ikelite housing for waterproofing.
When Weber sat down to sketch the five-stamp set, he used Wu’s Great White image first, basing all the colors and composition in the other stamps off that original image. Guided by shots like Wu’s, and by shark experts, Weber also sketched a Mako shark, Thresher shark, Whale shark and a hammerhead for the stamp series. After starting with drawings, Weber added detail with graphics software.
The images selected from those 40,000 or so ideas are also influenced by current causes — the U.S. Postal Service hopes that, by putting Wu’s photo and four others in a prominent place, the graphics will raise awareness for the role the animals play in the ocean’s ecosystem and the importance of their conservation.