Esther Bubley’s America

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What is most immediately striking about the Bubley pictures that appear in these pages is their intensity and uniformity of mood. Here is a photographer who spent most of her career nominally doing PR, first for a government at war, then for a big corporation, finally for magazines in their most cheerleading era. Could anyone possibly have botched the job more completely? From the apogee of the American century, when this country was a beacon to the world and had a unified, optimistic internal culture, comes, from Bubley, an overpowering feeling of loneliness, of regret, of longing unlikely ever to be fulfilled. An impeccably groomed uniformed man sits in a booth having his picture taken; somehow we know that whoever he is sending the picture to won’t love him as much as he wants to be loved. An adorable choirboy pulls aside his robe to reveal a toy six-shooter, as if to demonstrate that the spirit of the Lord can penetrate only so far into even the most innocent soul. The faces of romantic couples betray a limitless hunger and hope that life can hardly ever meet.

But the pictures are not propaganda in reverse. Bubley never held up her subjects as freaks or put raw, primitive people on display for the edification of the sophisticated in the manner of Diane Arbus and her many imitators. In Bubley’s work there is an effortless equivalence among subject, photographer, and audience. Whatever way it is that these people are hurting, it’s the same way we all are hurting. Nor is there any trace in Bubley of the impulse to make individuals stand as archetypes, an urge that intermittently infects the FSA file, with its palpable desire to create nobly suffering New Deal heroes. Her pictures consistently convey a sense that she has gotten to know the subject well enough to discern his or her distinguishing quality and then has waited for the expression and gesture that best convey it. Bubley’s people have personality, they want things, they think of their lives as having a purpose and a principle.

Visual artists are ordinarily judged on the aesthetic quality of their work. One like Bubley, who happens to be a documentary photographer and also meets the aesthetic test, rewards her audience with a bonus. What she depicted isn’t merely beautiful and challenging; it actually happened. Not only that, her particular people and places were caught up in the web of larger historical and social phenomena that are of intense interest to us today. Pare and pare Bubley’s large body of work down to its revealed graceful heart, and still you have the grandeur of the whole American enterprise during and after the Second World War. In intimate scale, this is a portrait of something big.