News & Politics

How a DC Photographer’s Portrait of RBG Became a Postage Stamp

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Watergate neighbor took the photo in 2017.

Photograph of Stamp courtesy of US Postal Service.

For stamp collectors, seeing their artwork turned into postage would be a little like a Swiftie having a breakup featured in a Taylor tune: a VERY BIG DEAL.

That’s certainly how Philip Bermingham feels. The local photographer, whose portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the basis for an eagerly awaited stamp that comes out in 2023, started collecting when he was five years old, and he’s grown into an avid philatelist. “It’s such a powerful photograph,” he says. “The fact that now it’s a stamp, it’s wonderful.”

The path to stampdom began at the Watergate, where Ginsburg lived until her death in 2020. Bermingham himself lives there, and he would run into Ginsburg and her husband around the building and at the Kennedy Center nearby. Ginsburg, an opera fanatic, often praised the portraits Bermingham took of the Washington National Opera’s principal singers. So the photographer decided it couldn’t hurt to ask his neighbor if he could take her portrait, too. She agreed, and in 2017, Ginsburg invited Bermingham to bring his equipment to her office at the Supreme Court.

On the designated day, Bermingham and his daughter took an Uber to their meeting, but standstill traffic threatened to upend their plans. The duo had to hop out of the car and walk with all their gear—making them more than an hour late. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I got there,” says Bermingham. “I was so anxious and upset.” But Ginsburg was nothing but gracious. “She said, ‘I have plenty of work to do—don’t worry about it,’ and immediately put us at ease,” Bermingham recalls. “I probably would have thrown somebody out of my office.”

Philip Bermingham in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s office in 2017. Photograph by Scarlett Bermingham.

That day, Ginsburg took Bermingham and his daughter on a tour of the Supreme Court chambers, showed them her wardrobe filled with her collars, and shared her thoughts on selfies (she didn’t understand them). She also sat for what turned out to be a striking photo, with that penetrating gaze seeming to drill into a viewer’s brain. That was just for the camera, though. “She was a real person,” says Bermingham. “She wasn’t being like, I’m a Supreme Court justice. She was just down-to-earth and lovely.”

Book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

The photos Bermingham took that day didn’t get much attention at first; in fact, they weren’t seen by the public until after Ginsburg’s death, per an agreement between the two. But he finally shared them on his site in 2020 and then in a published collection of his work this year. The portrait was also used as one of the covers of Ginsburg’s final book, Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue.

Meanwhile, the US Postal Service was working on plans for a Ginsburg stamp. Every three months, a committee of experts from a variety of fields meets to go through some of the 30,000 public suggestions that USPS gets annually regarding what should be featured on future stamps, and it hadn’t taken long after her death for the idea to get approved. But that quickly led to the next step: They needed the right image.

That task fell to Ethel Kessler, an art director who worked with the Postal Service on the Ginsburg stamp’s design. Her team pulled all the Ginsburg pictures they could find, but nothing seemed quite right until they came across Bermingham’s intimate portrait. “The camera is looking at her, and she is looking at it,” says Kessler. “It’s a direct visual contact, and not a lot of other photos are like that.”

Finally, Kessler commissioned artist Michael J. Deas to turn the photo into a slightly modified oil-painting version, with the idea that it would create more of a classic feel. Still, there’s no mistaking that gaze: The image is Bermingham’s. That’s why the photographer plans to stockpile a hefty supply of the stamps and use them on his mail for the rest of his life. Most Americans probably won’t go that far, but you can expect the stamp to be popular. After all, the photographer jokes, at 63 cents a pop, “it’s the cheapest way to get a Bermingham portrait.”

This article appeared in the December 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.