When John P. Schaefer got serious about photographing cactus flowers 20 years ago, it never occurred to him it would lead to this:

On Feb. 15, the U.S. Postal Service unveils its new Forever stamps, and they feature 10 of the retired University of Arizona president’s photographs.

“I think it’s a real kick, actually,” says the 84-year-old Schaefer, who will be at the unveiling at the AmeriStamp Expo in Mesa.

Schaefer, who co-founded the Center for Creative Photography with Ansel Adams, has long been an avid photographer, has published books on the subject, and is the photographer-in-residence at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Gardens.

He isn’t sure how the USPS came across his images, though he suspects it’s through his website, johnpschaefer.com.

The road to a new stamp is a yearslong one, says Roy A. Betts, a spokesperson for the USPS.

A committee fields ideas submitted by the public (by postcard or letter; not by email, Betts says). Once they decide on a subject, designers begin searching for the art.

The art director for the Schaefer stamps, Ethel Kessler, started looking for regional flower images in 2012, and eventually she came across Schaefer’s photos, vivid and colorful close-ups of cactus blossoms.

“His photos are absolutely gorgeous,” she said in a written statement. “And they get deeply into the flowers and not just the cactus itself. The flowering time frame is so short that most of us don’t see the color, texture and beauty of the flowers.”

Schaefer and Kessler worked together to select the images on the stamps.

And there were a lot to choose from.

When he became obsessed with shooting cactus blossoms, he sought them out at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, B & B Cactus Farm and throughout the Sonoran Desert.

“I started photographing and pretty soon I got up to 200, 300,” he says. “Then I realized there are about 3,000 species. I decided I’d photograph all of them, but I don’t think I’ll live that long.”

The stamps are now available at all post offices throughout the country.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter:

@kallenStar.

Reporter

Kathleen has covered the arts for the Star for 20 years. Previously, she covered business, news and features for the Tucson Citizen. A near-native of Tucson, she is continually amazed about the Old Pueblo's arts scene and feels lucky to be covering it.