Esther Bubley’s America

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The following month, Roy Stryker shocked his admirers by leaving the OWI to work for Standard Oil of New Jersey, a company that had been an anathema to liberals ever since the days of Ida Tarbell’s attacks on John D. Rockefeller. The company had just been through Senate hearings to determine if it had collaborated with IG Farben, the notorious German chemical company. Standard’s executives ordered a large project to photograph its operations all over the world, with an emphasis on their positive effect on people’s lives, in hopes of inducing Americans to view the oil company more benignly. And who better to accomplish this than Roy Stryker, whose FSA file, long before it was appreciated as art, was a well-known triumph of public relations?

Stryker brought most of his best FSA and OWI photographers, including Bubley, with him. They went all over the country and the world, their pictures always maintaining some connection to oil but ultimately creating a vast archive of some 80,000 images in which can be found practically everything about life in the 1940s. Bubley, still in her twenties when she joined the project, went out on the road for weeks at a time. She photographed the company town of Tomball, Texas, outside Houston; the remote West Texas oil-field community of Andrews; and the environs of Standard Oil’s refinery in Linden, New Jersey. She made her first foreign trip, to Mexico. Between her travels, Stryker would send her out onto the streets of New York City, where the project was headquartered, to chronicle such subjects as the recently opened Rockefeller Center.

When Bubley arrived in a town, she presented herself as a shy, direct, plainspoken young woman with a slight Midwestern twang. She was very small, with big, clear eyes and long, dark hair cut in bangs across her forehead. Somehow, without saying much, she was able to get people to let down their guard. Especially in Tomball, she succeeded in fulfilling Stryker’s fondest dream. Her work is a comprehensive record of every aspect of life in a certain kind of small town at a particular moment in history. It is a record whose existence, even now, few people are aware of.

Over the years, Standard Oil’s interests in its expensive photography project waned. Stryker left in 1950, and Bubley then embarked on a successful career as a photo-journalist, working for mass-circulation magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal and Life and occasionally for business clients. She covered everything from Albert Einstein’s seventy-fourth birthday to the Miss America pageant, but as time passed, her reputation was increasingly as a domestic photographer who took heartwarming pictures of children and animals, especially dogs.

This was doubly ironic. She did take many such pictures, but she was also, through this period, one of the foremost practitioners of industrial photography and an intrepid world traveler. Moreover, her life couldn’t have been more at odds with the tenor of her best-known work. Except for a brief disastrous marriage, she lived alone (from 1954 until her death in a cluttered apartment in the heart of midtown Manhattan), worked constantly and with no tolerance for the human foibles she celebrated in her pictures, and for the most part shunned social life.

It is difficult to imagine Bubley’s most memorable work during the post-Stryker period coming from the same person who produced a book called How Puppies Grow . In 1952, in Los Angeles to shoot a Ladies’ Home Journal assignment about a family, she was invited by an artist friend to a studio where Charlie Parker and an all-star band, including Benny Carter and Oscar Peterson, were making a record. The jazz-ignorant Bubley produced wonderfully hip pictures of the lords of bebop at work, which have never been published in the United States because a French company owns the rights to them and has yet to offer them here. In 1956 she took pictures all over Central and South America on an assignment from Pepsi-Cola. For years she photographed sickness and death at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. In another ongoing project, she took pictures, not on assignment, of the solitary customers at a New York Automat in her neighborhood.

Edward Steichen was a friend of Bubley and a champion of her work. During the years he was head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, her photographs regularly appeared in group shows he assembled, including “The Family of Man,” in 1955. Her work has been frequently exhibited and honored with awards, but still she has to be counted as underrated. Shy, difficult, and socially awkward, she wasn’t any good at the promotional side of being a famous photographer.