"Put me down with people, and it's just overwhelming."
Esther Bubley was a photojournalist whose body of work serves as a document of American culture in the mid-twentieth century. By the mid-1930s photography was mostly concerned with landscapes, snapshots, and family portraits. However, photography was quickly being discovered as a worthy tool of communication in making serious statements. With her unparalleled technical excellence with a camera, Bubley created a visual scene of American society beginning in the 1940s and enduring for decades.
Bubley's photographic documentation of American life began with her documentary photography work for the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942 and 1943 on the home front during World War II (1939–45). It continued on an international scale during the golden age of photojournalism from the 1940s to the 1960s. She captured Americans in very ordinary circumstances, going about their usual routines, in images that are compelling while being realistic and artistic as well. Bubley focused on the human dimension of war mobilization on the home front. Her style recalls a Norman Rockwell (1894–1978; see entry) manner of American realism, displaying a genuine interest in humanity. Bubley helped set the stage for future photojournalists of the world.
A world in transition
Born in 1921 in Phillips, Wisconsin, to Russian Jewish immigrants Louie and Ida Bubley, Esther was one of five children. She gained an interest in photography early in her life. After graduating from high school, she studied two years at Superior State Teachers College. Esther then transferred to the Minneapolis School of Design in order to complete its one-year photography program. In 1940, at age nineteen, Esther moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a professional photographer.
Esther Bubley spent a brief time as a freelance photographer for Vogue magazine before moving to Washington, D.C. There, jobs for women were becoming plentiful due to America's growing war mobilization efforts for World War II. She was first hired to shoot microfilm for the National Archives. Several months later, she moved over to the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to work as a lab technician in the darkroom. The FSA was organized to provide loans and resettlement opportunities to farmers impoverished by poor land conditions and the economic effects of the Great Depression (1929–41). The Historical Section of the FSA was assigned to document in photographs the agency's activities. Its job was to enhance the public's perception of federal aid for the destitute under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) New Deal program. New Deal was the name given to President Roosevelt's programs to bring relief, recovery, and reform to the United States, pulling the nation out of the Depression.
The government's message of reform was communicated to the American people through a wide variety of mediums. The FSA photographs illustrated government reports and appeared in exhibits as well as newspapers and magazines. Magazines such as Life and The Saturday Evening Post had become very popular in America in the 1930s, and Bubley longed to be in their pages. She began taking photographs of subjects around the nation's capital in order to prove her camera skills. Her photography impressed her employer
enough to send her on assignments for the FSA away from the laboratory. Quiet and unobtrusive, she was able to earn the trust of her subjects. She put them at ease in order to create photographs that had cultural as well as artistic interest. Her strength was her ability to capture the essence of the moment while remaining respectful of her subjects.
Bubley was one of an impressive group of photographers working for the FSA under the director, Roy Stryker. He insisted that they be well informed about their current topic before heading into the field. He assigned books to read and gave informal lectures to educate his photographers. Even though the photographs were to be spontaneous, the preparation work for the photographer was extensive. Stryker knew what he wanted to see and gave explicit instructions, including shooting scripts for each season and each job a photographer was assigned.
With America's entry into World War II in December 1941, the FSA photographic unit shifted to the Office of War Information (OWI). Its focus changed to ever more positive images of the country in order to boost morale on the home front. Organized by President Roosevelt on June 13, 1942, the OWI became the office of government information for the entire American war effort. The OWI was charged with providing all information to overseas forces as well as communicating between the government and media on the home front. Its task was primarily educational and its images showed a country in transition from the weighted days of the Great Depression to the frantic pace inspired by the war.
Bubley found ample subject matter to explore on the American home front as the nation mobilized for war. She was drawn to real people in their intimate moments. Her images did not necessarily glorify war but caught both patriotic scenes and the human condition without the added wartime sentimentality. She focused on the human situation as opposed to any kind of propaganda (government information given to sway public beliefs), and in doing so she exposed her audience to an honest assessment of wartime America on the home front. By choosing to focus on ordinary people in extraordinary times, she showed a great compassion for her subjects. Her work reflected aspects of wartime life that were often ignored.
A new era
With the end of war in 1945, the OWI was disbanded and its collection of photographs transferred to the Library of
Like Esther Bubley, Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) was another highly skilled female photographer whose camera would document changes on the American home front during World War II (1939–45). Lange focused especially on workers uprooted by the war. Lange's early work covered displaced farm families and migrant workers during the Great Depression (1929–41), when she worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). She captured one image of an exhausted thirty-two-year-old migrant mother, with three of her seven children, waiting at the edge of a worker's camp in Nipomo, California. The photograph, "Migrant Mother," is one of the best-known images to come out of the FSA's 145,000-item photographic collection made between 1935 and 1943. It is also one of the most widely reproduced and exhibited photographs in history.
Three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, Lange was hired by the federal War Relocation Authority (WRA) to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans and resident aliens living in the United States. More than 110,000 people of Japanese descent were moved from their homes along the U.S. West Coast into ten wartime camps in remote areas on the American mainland. Lange encountered disturbing racial and civil rights issues raised by the Japanese internment and found herself at odds with her employer, the U.S. government. Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) called for the internment. Many of Lange's photographs showing the indignities suffered by the Japanese internees were censored by the government. The full impact of her photographs was not felt until 1972, when the Whitney Museum included twenty-seven of them in an exhibition titled "Executive Order 9066."
Congress. Bubley put her passion for photography to work in the corporate world, covering the postwar decades throughout the world. She would travel to Europe, Asia, and Australia as well as to Central and South America. In 1954 she became the first female recipient of Photography magazine's grand prize in the International Black-and-White division. She earned the award for her photographs of a UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) medical mission. The mission involved a medical team's treatment of trachoma, an eye disease causing blindness among the desert inhabitants of Morocco.
Bubley became a regular freelance photographer for numerous national magazines. Her best-known work was a celebrated series for Ladies Home Journal. The series titled "How America Lives" ran from 1948 through 1960. By the mid-1960s television replaced the popular illustrated magazines as the primary source of news and entertainment, and Bubley retired from her hectic schedule. She settled into her Manhattan, New York, apartment and pursued interests in gardening and animals. Bubley published several books on both of these favored topics. She lived to see a renewed interest in her photography in the 1980s and 1990s. Books and museums continued to showcase her work even after her death in 1998.
For More Information
Lesy, Michael. Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935–1943. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
O'Neill, Lois Decker, ed. The Women's Book of World Records and Achievements. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979.
Parrish, Thomas D., ed. Encyclopedia of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster (A Cord Communications Book imprint), 1978.
Stryker, Roy Emerson, and Nancy Wood. In This Proud Land: America 1935–1943 As Seen in the FSA Photographs. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
"The Photographers: Esther Bubley." Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/photog6.html (accessed on July 18, 2004).