Snapping Stamps

Bay Area photographer Gary Crabbe never set out to see his work grace the United States mail but thanks to a new set of postal stamps, that's exactly what happened.

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The hills above an upscale San Francisco suburb were probably not what poet Katharine Lee Bates had in mind when she wrote about “the fruited plain” in her 1893 poem “America the Beautiful.” But the vista of a rolling Orinda landscape is part of a new collection of U.S. stamps inspired by Bates’ poem.

Bay Area photographer Gary Crabbe’s Orinda image is one of 20 photos chosen by the U.S. Postal Service for its new “O Beautiful” stamp series — seven of which were shot by Crabbe. The newly released stamp collection includes four stamps each on five themes: Spacious Skies, Waves of Grain, Mountain Majesties, the Fruited Plain and Sea to Shining Sea.

Crabbe,53,who began his career with famed photographer Galen Rowell after taking a photography class at Humboldt State on a whim, never aspired to turn his work into postage. After nine years under Rowell, Crabbe set out on his own nearly two decades ago.

“I figured I would sell some of my photos,” Crabbe says. “I could do that while being a stay-at-home dad, and that right there began what I called ‘two kids and seven books and 15 years.’”

His books, which include such titles as “Photographing California: Vol. 1” and “Backroads of the California Coast,” all exclusively feature the Golden State, and the vast majority of Crabbe’s work is shot on the West Coast. The Pleasant Hill resident drives to chosen film locations — the Yosemite Valley is a favorite destination — and camps out in his truck for days at a time, waiting for the perfect shot with his Nikon D800.

“People think, ‘Oh my God. That is so fabulous. I would love to do what you do,’” Crabbe says. “And I’m like, ‘I spend 10 to 12 days at a time living out of the back of my truck, eating oatmeal and canned soup.’ The rest of the time, I’m stuck behind a computer. Alone. So, I mean, it’s like they always say — greener on the other side of the hills, but not necessarily so.”

About a year and a half ago, representatives from the USPS reached out to let Crabbe know they were considering his work for inclusion in a new stamp collection. Might he be interested in submitting some images?

“I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, sounds great,’” Crabbe says. “And then it was like six months of silence, just nothing.”

He forgot about the stamps — until one day, the phone rang. Seven of Crabbe’s images had been selected for the “O Beautiful” collection, more than any other photographer, and he’d have to keep the news a secret until the day before the stamps were officially launched into circulation on July 4.

Ironically, as Crabbe points out, the post office is closed for the Fourth of July holiday.

While the “O Beautiful” collection of 20 stamps includes images from all over the country, six of Crabbe’s seven stamp photos were taken in California. The seventh was shot near Crater Lake in Oregon.

For the use of his images on stamps and related products, Crabbe was paid what he regards as a modest licensing fee. “It’s not a huge amount. I described it as more than coach airfare across the ocean, but probably not first class,” Crabbe says. “Maybe business class. Somewhere in there.”

He retains the rights to his images and plans to sell prints framed alongside the stamp versions. He’s still debating just how many stacks of “O Beautiful” stamps he’ll need to last a lifetime.

More than a nice paycheck, the thrill of seeing his work immortalized on United States stamps is a feather in Crabbe’s cap.

“For me it’s just like a huge honor and probably what it will do is like having seven books,” he says. “It gives you a sense of credibility so if you do reach out or work with other clients, and they look to see what you’ve done in the past, they go, ‘Oh, you have some books. Oh, you have seven books and seven stamps.’ Now I just need to figure a nice way to present that to people that I want to work with.”

And what is Crabbe going to do next? His plans are pretty simple.

“I was thinking go fishing or go for a hike,” Crabbe says. “I mean, it’s like, what can you do really to top it?”

Keep reading: California author Gregory Crouch digs deep into Wild West history and uncovers the untold story of an immigrant who struck it rich — in more ways than one.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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