Viewfinder: Esther Bubley

Esther Bubley (1921–1998) was a leading freelance photographer during the golden age of photojournalism. Bubley was renowned for her photographs featuring the United States and its people in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. NMWA’s latest exhibition, Esther Bubley Up Front, presents 27 prints recently donated to the museum.

Esther Bubley, Untitled (Washington, D.C.), 1943; Gelatin silver print, 9 x 8 in.; Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Jean B. Bubley; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Esther Bubley, Untitled (Washington, D.C.), 1943; Gelatin silver print, 9 x 8 in.; Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Jean B. Bubley; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Born in Phillips, Wisconsin, Bubley developed a passion for photography in high school. Her career in photography took off in 1942 when she was hired as a darkroom assistant for Roy Stryker, the famed head of the photographic unit of the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington, D.C.

Under Stryker’s tutelage, Bubley tackled her first assignments documenting wartime in the nation’s capital. Working primarily with a 35mm and other small handheld cameras, Bubley was able to capture her subjects from unusual vantage points.

Bubley continued to work under Stryker when he was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company to create a photographic file documenting the oil industry.

One of her best-known assignments for Standard Oil was a profile on the oil boom town of Tomball, Texas. She immersed herself in the town for six weeks, documenting the activities of its oil workers and their families. Bubley’s candid images of the residents provide an intimate record of small-town America in the mid-20th century.

Bubley’s talent for creating probing and gently humorous images contributed to her success. She freelanced for various corporations including Pepsi and Pan-American Airways, and publications including Life and Ladies’ Home Journal. Bubley contributed stories illustrating subjects ranging from the Miss America pageant to after-school programs to farm life. One of her prominent stories covered the Rood family of Wahoo, Nebraska, who had successfully paid off their farm’s 40-year mortgage in only six years. The Roods housed Bubley while she photographed them working, going to school, and enjoying family nights.

Esther Bubley, Untitled (Wahoo, Nebraska), 1948; Gelatin silver print, 12 1/8 x 10 1/4 in.; Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Jean B. Bubley; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Esther Bubley, Untitled (Wahoo, Nebraska), 1948; Gelatin silver print, 12 1/8 x 10 1/4 in.; Gift of Jill and Jeffrey Stern; © Jean B. Bubley; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Bubley was one of few women of her time whose photographic accomplishments led her to prominence in her field. Her curious and genuine approach to her subjects yielded deeply insightful images of American culture.

Esther Bubley Up Front is on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery though January 17, 2016.