Esther Bubley’s America

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Probably a bit of disclosure is necessary as you look at the pictures reproduced here. They are drawn from the work of Esther Bubley, one of the pioneer female photo journalists of the mid-twentieth century, who died in undeserved obscurity in 1998. The conclusion you might draw from them is that Bubley belongs to the American aesthetic tradition of haunted, lonely realism. You think of Edward Hopper’s paintings, or Sherwood Anderson’s sketches of “grotesques” in Winesburg, Ohio , while studying Bubley’s deeply etched, beautifully composed portraits of isolated, hard-living people.

But if you were to see the entire body of Bubley’s published work—a series of books and many assignments for popular picture magazines—her sensibility would seem much more cheerful. Back in the days when the baby boomers were babies, Bubley was the go-to gal if you were a photography editor who wanted a shot of a delightful child or a frolicking pet. And in her unpublished work, thousands and thousands of negatives that are preserved in archives, mainly at the Library of Congress and the University of Louisville, you’d find still another Bubley, a neutral, almost technical, obsessively detailed recorder of the particulars of ordinary American life and work during the 1940s. There the artistic impulse appears subordinated to an urge to catalogue.

So if the pictures here represent the best and truest Esther Bubley, which I think they do, they do not reflect a carefully crafted, self-conscious persona. Bubley had an artist’s total dedication and self-belief, but she always insistently denied that she considered herself to be an artist. The unifying vision that appears so strong in these photos is not, as far as we know, something she felt herself to be imposing as she was making them.

Bubley’s early career, during which she produced most of the work shown here, was very closely bound up, more than is usually the case with leading photographers, with one editor, Roy Emerson Stryker, who, luckily for her, was the greatest photo editor who ever lived. To understand her work requires understanding him.

Stryker was a product of the small-town West (Montrose, Colorado) who became an economist at Columbia University. During the Depression, his mentor, Rexford Guy Tugwell, brought him to Washington to work for the New Deal for a summer, and after returning for a final year at Columbia, Stryker came back to Washington, finished forever with his academic career. In government he was given the job of producing a photo documentary of rural poverty for the Farm Security Administration, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Stryker’s “FSA file” deservedly became the most celebrated documentary photography project in American history. He had a superb eye for talent; among the photographers he hired were Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Russell Lee.

Stryker gave these people the opposite of a free rein. He sent them out on long, grueling road trips, often bearing bulky large-format cameras, heavy flash equipment, and niggling, obsessively detailed instructions about the images he wanted them to bring back. Stryker was interested not just in the face of poverty but in industrial processes, modes of social organization, buildings, signs, automobiles. In other words, he was attempting to build a record of American life. He directed his photographers to write detailed captions that named and described every person and thing depicted.

The FSA project wound down with the onset of World War II. Stryker was transferred to the Office of War Information to mount a similar, though perhaps more nakedly propagandistic, photography project there. It was on the OWI project that Esther Bubley’s path crossed his.

Bubley, the daughter of Russian immigrants, was born in 1921 in a remote small town in north-central Wisconsin and grew up in Superior, where her father ran a series of small, economically marginal stores. She discovered photography early; she once told an interviewer she had been inspired by the publication of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936, with Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic picture of a dam on the cover. Bubley’s first published photograph, in a local paper, was of a locomotive. She moved to Minneapolis to study photography at an art college and tried, without success, to find work at one of the city’s photo studios. Her sister, a stenographer in Washington, D.C., sent her bus fare, but Bubley couldn’t get a job in Washington either. She went to New York and managed to get herself hired shooting still lifes for Vogue , then returned to Washington and began working as a microfilmer at the National Archives. In 1943 Stryker hired her as a lab assistant at the Office of War Information.

Bubley began taking pictures around Washington as a kind of self-imposed audition for a position as one of Stryker’s photographers. Her photographic interests and Stryker’s were similar to begin with, but she also was obviously trying to work in the Stryker house style. She produced photographic “stories,” rather than isolated images, augmented by detailed captions and meant to convey a larger social-historical reality. The results of these tryouts are in the OWI’s files as if they had been produced by one of the regular photographers, so she was obviously showing her work to Stryker and impressing him. In September 1943, Stryker conferred full photographic legitimacy on her by sending her on a road trip.