Bubley, Esther (1921—)

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Bubley, Esther (1921—)

American industrial photographer, known for her use of "picture story" technique. Born in Phillips, Wisconsin, in 1921; attended Superior State Teachers College, Superior, Wisconsin, 1937–38; studied art and photography at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 1939.

Esther Bubley was set on becoming a painter when she discovered photography. Encouraged by winning a $1,000 prize in Life Magazine's Contest for Young Photographers, she spent some of her early years in Washington, D.C., microfilming rare books at the National Archives. After a stint as staff photographer for the Office of War Information, in 1943 she got her break in New York, freelancing for Roy Stryker, then director of Standard Oil's photographic activities. Her first assignments included photographing America's bus system and Texas oil boomtowns. Between 1948 and 1960, Bubley worked on photojournalism assignments for the Ladies' Home Journal series, "How America Lives." She also did a number of assignments for Life magazine. Her photographs appeared in periodicals, including McCall's, Woman's Day, Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping.

One of the first to use the 35-mm camera and the "picture story" technique in industrial work, Bubley was known to climb oil rigs, ride cranes, and stand at the mouths of blast furnaces to get her shots. She was also known for her sensitive images of children, for which she traveled to almost every imaginable environment the world over. Her studies of children in South and Central America, and in many other countries, culminated in a series commissioned by the United Nations' International Children's Emergency Fund.

Bubley's approach remained fresh, and she kept her photographs—including her work in industry and photojournalism—out of the realm of commercialism. In her book on New York's Central Park, for example, she surprises the viewer with images of owls, rabbits, turtles, and even an empty champagne bottle floating in the lake.

In the 1960s, a poll of the nation's leading photographic editors and writers named Esther Bubley one of the top women photographers. Her work has been included in a number of exhibitions through the years. In 1948, her photographs were featured in an exhibition curated by Edward Steichen called In and Out of Focus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was also represented in two other Steichen exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art: Diogenes with aCamera (1952) and The Family of Man (1955). Bubley had solo exhibitions at Limelight Gallery (1956) and Ledel Gallery (1982), both in New York, and at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery (1989) in Washington, D.C. In 1989, she was featured with Marion Post Wolcott in a two-person exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Once when asked why she chose her profession, Bubley's unassuming answer was simply, "I like it."

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts