US Stamps

By Jay Bigalke

David Gahr black-and-white photos used for Janis Joplin, Miles Davis stamps

August 07, 2014 04:00 PM

  • Original uncropped photograph of Janis Joplin taken in 1970 by David Gahr and the Janis Joplin commemorative forever stamp issued Aug. 8 using the same image. Photograph courtesy Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images.

  • Original uncropped photograph of Janis Joplin taken in 1970 by David Gahr and the Janis Joplin commemorative forever stamp issued Aug. 8 using the same image. Photograph courtesy Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images.

Two recent United States postage stamps for musicians Janis Joplin, issued Aug. 8, and Miles Davis, issued in 2012, share a common thread — both use photographs taken in summer 1970 by David Gahr.

Gahr (1922-2008) was one of the “pre-eminent photographers of American folk, blues, jazz and rock musicians of the 1960s and beyond,” according to Gahr’s obituary by Bruce Weber published in The New York Times.

Gahr’s photographs of musicians have been featured on album covers and have appeared in Life, Rolling Stone and People. He also worked as the culture photographer at Time magazine.

The photograph that became the basis for the Janis Joplin forever stamp in the Music Icon series was taken during an early afternoon shoot in June 1970 on the rooftop garden of the Hotel Chelsea in New York City.

Gahr captured Joplin’s wild hair, her full-feathered attire, large glasses, bangles, beads and boas, in the image.

U.S. Postal Service art director Antonio Alcala designed the Janis Joplin stamp. He tinted Gahr’s black-and-white photograph light blue and made Joplin’s round sunglasses a rose color.

Both the original and the U.S. Postal Service publicity image of the Joplin stamp are shown here.

Comparing the photograph to the stamp, it is evident that digital cropping of Joplin’s hair took place largely on the right side of the photograph to accommodate the bubbly typography of the stamp. The photograph also was cropped from the bottom to fit the square postage stamp frame.

Another black-and-white photograph by Gahr is featured on the Miles Davis forever stamp (Scott 4693), designed by USPS art director Greg Breeding.

The stamp was released June 12, 2012, as part of a joint issue with France. The joint issue also includes a forever stamp honoring Edith Piaf (Scott 4692).

According to the @Estate of David Gahr, approximately 23 million of the 30 million Miles Davis stamps printed have been sold to date.

Gahr took the photograph of Davis in August 1970 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass.

The photo captured Davis in a pose that has become iconic for the musician. In addition to being used on the stamp, its is featured on the cover of Davis’s 1970 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

On both, however, it appears that Davis is performing solo, while that evening he performed with Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Dave Holland, horn player Gary Bartz, and percussionist Airto Moriera.

The original photograph shows Bartz playing saxophone and Jarrett on the keyboard. Holland’s hand and drumstick can be seen at far right.

Davis’s set list for that concert included songs from In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

“Charles Mingus once told me Miles Davis was the most beautiful man in the whole world,” said Gahr. “He was right.”

Gahr was born Sept. 22, 1922, in Milwaukee, Wis. He served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s degree in economics, he moved to New York City to further his education at Columbia University.

He also worked at the Sam Goody music store in Manhattan. There, he met numerous notable musicians and soon began photographing them. In 1958, he became a professional photographer.

Gahr died May 25, 2008.

Linn’s asked if the estate had been approached by the Postal Service about the use of any other Gahr photographs on future stamps, and the estate indicated that it had not been contacted for future projects.

Even so, with Gahr’s extensive photo collection of musicians, and the continuation of the Music Icons series of stamps that debuted in 2013, anything is possible.