3 Photographs in Collection
(1921-1998) United States
Works in Selected Public Collections
Library of Congress (FSA/OWI), Washington, D.C; Standard Oil Collection, University of Louisville, KY; New York Public Library, NY; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA; International Center of Photography, NY, NY.; Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY
Esther Bubley retrospective, UBS/PaineWebber Art Gallery, New York, 2001
Esther Bubley on Assignment: Photographs Since 1939, University of Buffalo Art Department and CEPA Gallery, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1989 & 1990
Esther Bubley: On Assignment, Bonnie Yochelson with Tracy A. Schmid, Aperture Foundation, New York, NY, 2005
Esther Bubley’s World of Children in Photographs, Esther Bubley, Dover Publications, New York, NY 1981.
Born 1921 Phillips, WI
Died 1998 New York, NY
Esther Bubley was a gifted documentary photographer whose narrative images provide an intimate insight into daily life in mid 20th century America. A self-defined documentary or “straight photographer,” Bubley became a professional photographer during the golden age of large format photography magazines. Her celebrated eye and ability to engender trust from her subjects took her around the world, illuminating ordinary life from rural America to Miss America pageants, bus depots to emergency rooms, and making informal portraits of teens and refugees, people of fame and industrial workers.
Esther Bubley was the fourth of five children born to Russian Jewish immigrants in the midwestern U.S. She became interested in photography in high school where she was the yearbook editor. After high school Bubley followed the path of her sisters and enrolled in Superior State Teachers College in Wisconsin (now University of Wisconsin) but upon graduating she took a position in a photo lab where she worked for a year before enrolling in Minneapolis School of Art. Unable to find work in photography in Minneapolis, she moved to Washington, D.C. and then to New York where she found a job taking photographs of customers at a nightclub but was unhappy when the boss harassed her to be “his girlfriend.” She did a few jobs for Vogue magazine and took classes at the School of Modern Photography, but without a steady income she returned to D.C. in the spring of 1942 to shoot microfilm for the National Archives. Her supervisor there introduced her to Roy Stryker, an introduction that would shape the rest of her life.
In 1942 Stryker was working for the Office of War Information (OWI) in the government photography department (previously the Farm Security Administration (FSA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal). Impressed by her professionalism and eagerness, Stryker hired Bubley to work in the darkroom and encouraged her to make her own photographs. He also introduced her to Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano, Russell Lee and others who had been engaged as FSA photographers. Shortly thereafter Bubley was promoted to field photographer, documenting the people and places around her in D.C. In 1943 she received an Art Directors Club award for one of her pictures and another was reproduced in U.S. Camera Annual.
Bubley was particularly successful at gaining the trust of her subjects so Stryker gave her assignments that required a more intimate sensibility. An important early assignment was documenting American bus travel. For four weeks Bubley lived on buses traveling up and down the east coast and throughout the midwest photographing passengers and bus employees. U.S. Camera used one of the Bus Story images for its cover in May 1944 and the next month published more images from the series, naming her “one of today’s outstanding young photographers.”
Later the same year, Stryker invited Bubley to join him in New York in his new position setting up a photography library for Standard Oil. The goal was to build up to 25,000 images that documented the accomplishments of the oil industry, illustrating that “there’s a drop of oil in everything.” The library was not just for corporate public relation purposes; it was also used widely by large format picture magazines, other industries and new agencies. At 23 years old Bubley found herself again living in New York but this time with a salary, during the heyday of photojournalism and working beside famed photographers Gordon Parks and John Vachon.
In the spring of 1945 Stryker sent Bubley to Texas where she found Tomball, a small town outside of Houston whose primary employer was the Humble Oil Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil. Over the span of six weeks Bubley took 600 photographs, many among the best in Standard Oil’s library. The series was so well received by the community that Standard Oil produced an exhibition of enlargements and shared them at Humble’s headquarters, the local bank and the Tomball County fair.
Using a Rolleiflex camera, it was difficult for Bubley to not be noticed as she moved around the community taking pictures of church services and neighbors at work and play but she waited for her subjects to relax and become accustom to her presence. Eventually she convinced Stryker to allow her to turn in her Rolleiflex for a 35-millimeter camera which was smaller and attracted less attention.
Gasoline Plant Steam Expansion Loop was taken on Bubley’s trip to Texas. This black and white abstracted image is of the plant’s steam expansion pipe. Bubley’s modernist sensibility can be seen in the patterns she evokes with the natural lighting and tight composition.
Weehawken, New Jersey captures a view across the Hudson River to Manhattan’s Midtown skyline that speaks to the bravado and energy that was New York post WWII. This image was done as part of an assignment on the New York Harbor commissioned by Standard Oil. Weehawken is an industrial port and railroad center. The strong black and white contrasts in this image highlight the move towards abstraction that was occurring at this moment in the U.S. Here the shapes and structures of American industry, found in the grid-like patterning of the train cars and warehouse roof tops, contrast with the steam and soft smoke rising from ships and portside plants.
Limon Ship in Harbor could also have been made as part of Standard Oil’s Harbor assignment. Here Bubley’s modernist perspective reduces the ship to geometric forms and line. The ship’s prow consumes the image, presenting as a narrowed visage with the anchor chains mimicking the action of weeping tears at the end of WWII. As is true for much of her industrial work, the man who labors is almost incidental, his efforts to wash the huge expanse of the ship seemingly overwhelming.
When Standard Oil reduced the scope of the library (having accumulated over 70,000 photographs) Bubley accepted assignments from other corporations and magazines. At this time photography was an important way for corporations to connect with their clients so many published high quality general interest magazines. In 1947 Bubley started a relationship with the Children’s Bureau, a federal welfare agency that was part of the Social Security Administration, with whom she worked for many years, building a file of thousands of pictures.
In 1948 Bubley married Edwin Locke, a photographer who was eleven years older who she had met at Standard Oil. Unfortunately, Locke was an alcoholic and the marriage did not last but three years before it was annulled. The difficult marriage plunged Bubley deeper into her work and in 1949 and 1950 she received first prize in the News Pictures of the Year competition sponsored by University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and Encyclopedia Brittanica.
During the next few decades Bubley completed over forty different photo essays for Life magazine and a dozen for Ladies Home Journal series “How America Lives.” For these projects she photographed a wide swath of humanity from tenant farmers to New York City apartment dwellers, hospital and mental health patients, to teenagers and church choirs. Bubley was tremendously skilled at the photo essay. She took time to understand her subject and captured the images that were in front of her using whatever light was available. She was committed to “straight photography” and did not manipulate her images but sought out social truths with a compassionate and skilled compositional eye.
Photography magazines continued to give Bubley accolades and her work was greatly admired by Edward Steichen who directed MoMA’s photo Department. Steichen included Bubley in a number of his exhibitions including Six Women Photographers (1950) along with Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White; Diogenes with a Camera (1952) which included Edward Weston, Frederick Sommer and Harry Callahan; and Family of Man (1955) Steichen’s enormously popular exhibition which traveled throughout the world.
Between 1956 and 1958 Pepsi-Cola hired Bubley to create photo essays for their magazine, Panorama which they launched to celebrate their international growth. Bubley was assigned to Latin America to shoot their new bottling plants and do local human-interest stories. Her work featuring a circus in Bogota, Columbia won an Art Director Club award in 1958. Security Mutual Life Insurance and the Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company hired Bubley to do Family of Man style campaigns with candid photographs, representing different attributes and life stages. They too won art Director Club awards.
In 1964 and 1965 Pan Am sent Bubley twice around the world to shoot the company’s staff and equipment as well as human interest stories for their corporate magazine, Clipper. In 1964 Bubley spent two months in Europe, the Middle East and southwest Asia and in 1965 she was in southeast Asia and the Pacific. Returning to New York after these trips she was exhausted and settled into an apartment at Broadway and West 56th. She continued to work for a number of magazines including Life, Look, Women’s Day, McCall’s and the New York Times Magazine but as television began to usurp magazines her career slowed down. Traveling far less, Bubley adopted a Dalmatian puppy, Sheba, who became her subject as they walked daily in New York’s Central Park.
In the 1970s Bubley published three books that used photographs to teach “how to” methods: How Puppies Grow (1972) and How Kittens Grow (1975), children’s books that were published in multiple languages and A Mysterious Presence (1979) which illustrated how the plants in her apartment grew. Until the end of her life in 1998, Bubley remained interested in her work.
Esther Bubley was an extremely versatile photographer, able to document industrial equipment for corporate clients and take intimate pictures of children in the hospital or a family sharing Sunday supper. For many decades she sensitively and thoughtfully documented ordinary people doing ordinary things at a time when photography and photographers were telling the stories of the world.