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Here's the story of the portrait behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg's postage stamp

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's portrait for a new Forever stamp from the U.S. Postal Service is based on a 2017 photograph taken in her office at the Supreme Court.
U.S. Postal Service
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's portrait for a new Forever stamp from the U.S. Postal Service is based on a 2017 photograph taken in her office at the Supreme Court.

As a Supreme Court justice with a large and devoted fan base, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a cultural and judicial phenomenon.

And now the influential justice will adorn cards, letters and packages: The U.S. Postal Service officially unveiled a new stamp featuring Ginsburg on Monday. The Forever stamps cost 66 cents each — or $13.20 for a sheet of 20.

The stamp's oil-painting portrait is based on a photograph captured by Philip Bermingham, a well-known portrait photographer who also happened to be Ginsburg's neighbor in the Watergate building.

"It is such a powerful photograph," Bermingham, who has photographed royalty and other luminaries, told NPR. "I wish I knew how I could replicate this on every session."

The photograph was taken in 2017

On the day of the photo shoot, Ginsburg, who was then 84, hosted Bermingham and his daughter in her office at the Supreme Court, where a shelf of books sat on her desk. Other books stood at the ready on carts nearby.

Bermingham had long anticipated the session, but in the early going of the shoot, things didn't seem to be working out. Finally, he decided the angles were all wrong — and the 6'4" photographer realized he should get on the ground, to let his lens peer up at Ginsburg, who stood around 5 feet tall.

"So I got down on the floor and I got her to lean over me," he said. "So I'm looking right up at her" — and Ginsburg's eyes connected with the camera in a way they hadn't in the rest of the session.

"It's like you feel a presence in the photograph," Bermingham said.

The two had frequently run into each other at the Kennedy Center, pursuing their mutual love of opera. And they had joked before about their height gap. Once, towering over Ginsburg in an elevator, Bermingham had laughingly said she looked petrified to see him.

But Ginsburg made sure to dispel that notion.

"I look up to you, but I'm not afraid of you," she later wrote to him in a note.

Ginsburg's stamp memorializes her quest for equal justice

The moment U.S. Postal Service art director Ethel Kessler saw Bermingham's striking photo of Ginsburg, she knew it should be the reference for the late justice's stamp.

"For me, this was the stamp project of a lifetime," Kessler said in a statement to NPR, calling Ginsburg "a true pioneer for equal justice."

The new stamp shows Ginsburg in her judicial robes, wearing her famous white beaded collar with an intricate geometric pattern that she said came from Cape Town, South Africa.

It was one of the justice's favorite collars and jabots — and it's a change from the more formal gold-colored piece she wore for her portrait photograph with Bermingham.

The Postal Service commissioned New Orleans artist Michael Deas for the stamp, asking him to create an oil painting that would deliver the timeless gravitas of a Supreme Court justice, and also capture Ginsburg's intellect and character.

"Ultimately, it was the details that led to the stamp's aura of grandeur and historical significance," said Kessler, who designed the final product. "Resilient yet sublime. Determined but accessible. It is truly... justice."

Ginsburg, who died in September of 2020, is the first Supreme Court justice to get a solo U.S. stamp issue since 2003, when Thurgood Marshall was honored.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.