Clever Capture: Esther Bubley’s Photographs

Freelance photographer Esther Bubley (1921–1998) gained renown for her revealing pictures of Americans from 1945 to 1965. During this “golden age” of American photojournalism, Bubley created probing and gently humorous images. With a prodigious ability to put her subjects at ease, Bubley was able to create complex narratives.

Installation view of Esther Bubley Up Front; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Esther Bubley Up Front; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

NMWA’s latest exhibition, Esther Bubley Up Front, presents 27 prints recently donated to the museum.

Bubley contributed photos for popular magazines, including Life and Ladies’ Home Journal. Publications such as these provided a window to the world through “picture-stories.” While television was a relatively new phenomenon, magazines were still a main source of news and entertainment for American society.

Bubley contributed photo essays frequently, adding clever and observant captions shaped from her copious notes. In particular, Bubley’s photos of the 1957 Miss America pageant represent an intriguing moment in history.

Bubley’s photographs do not depict polished moments. Instead, she captured images behind the scenes. Her photographs document backstage preparation and curious bystanders. Through turning her lens away from obvious photo opportunities, Bubley managed to find the candid, offbeat moments before and after the competition. Bubley’s Backstage in Quest to Be Miss America—Atlantic City, New Jersey (1957) includes both contestants and onlookers.

Esther Bubley, "Backstage in Quest to Be Miss America"- Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1957; Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family

Esther Bubley, Backstage in Quest to Be Miss America—Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1957; Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family

Using a small handheld camera, Bubley developed a quick, point-and-shoot style. Her unobtrusive equipment, combined with her method of meeting her subjects and then “waiting until they got thoroughly bored with me and went back to their own conversations,” resulted in engrossing, active images.

NMWA’s exhibition includes several of Bubley’s pageant photos. Accompanying wall text shares a humorous anecdote about the contestants before the competition. Bubley observed, “Backstage, the girls became very sociable, exchanging addresses with one another. Miss Kansas gave all the other misses sunflower earrings and Miss Idaho gave out packages of instant mashed potatoes. But there were frustrations and tensions and blow ups. Miss Puerto Rico lost the record she was supposed to dance to. Miss Alabama lost weight, and her clothes began to sag. Miss Oklahoma, in excitement, lost her lunch.” Together with her photographs, Bubley’s note immerses viewers in the backstage environment.

Installation view of Esther Bubley, Backstage in Quest to Be Miss America—Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1957; Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family, © Jean Bubley

Installation view of Esther Bubley, Backstage in Quest to Be Miss America—Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1957; Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family, © Jean Bubley

By the mid-1960s, however, television had replaced magazines as the primary source of popular news and entertainment. The shift from print publications to television as the largest and easiest source of information undermined the demand for top photojournalists like Bubley. However, museum visitors can see the accomplished photojournalist’s work in Esther Bubley Up Front through January 17, 2016. Visit the museum to learn more!

—Sarah Mathiesen was the fall 2015 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.