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Esther Bubley’s America

June 2024
7min read

In a career spent photographing the country during a time of triumph and prosperity, she also left a record of the loneliness, melancholy, and individual courage that are always part of the human lot

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 And in her unpublished work, thousands and thousands of negatives that are preserved in archives, mainly at the Library of Congress and the University of Louisville, you’d find still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.

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.

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.

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