Editor's Choice

National Museum of Women in the Arts Exhibition

Work by Photojournalist Esther Bubley

Through Jan. 17, 2016 

Esther Bubley Up Front brings into focus a photographer who created extraordinary images from ordinary moments. Drawn from a recent donation to NMWA’s collection, this spotlight exhibition presents 27 prints by Esther Bubley (1921–1998). During America’s golden age of photojournalism, Bubley cast her discerning eye over a broad range of subjects including beauty pageants, boarding houses, schools, clinics and kitchens. Her immersive working process and compassion for her subjects yielded deeply insightful images that also subtly critique American culture on the eve of the Cold War and Civil Rights movement. She approached assignments with genuine curiosity, creating probing and enduring portrayals of ordinary lives. Through her images, Bubley communicated the traditions and routines that shaped American life in the mid-20th century. She exercised great patience, spending time with her subjects to put them at ease and photographing them only after they stopped focusing on her camera.  “Bubley’s talent for creating probing and gently humorous images of Americans contributed to her success in photojournalism,” said curatorial assistant Stephanie Midon. “In an industry dominated by men, Bubley was one of the few women whose photographic accomplishments led her to the top of the field with work in magazines such as Life and Ladies’ Home Journal.” 

Born in Phillips, Wisconsin, Bubley developed a passion for photography while serving as her high school’s yearbook editor. She set out for New York City in 1940 to become a professional photographer. After a brief stint at Vogue magazine, she moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a darkroom assistant to Roy Stryker at the Office of War Information (OWI). With Stryker’s encouragement, Bubley began photographing neighborhoods and activities around Washington, recording the effects of World War II on the community. One of few OWI photographers who worked primarily with 35 mm and other small handheld cameras, Bubley developed a dynamic point-and-shoot style that enabled her to photograph from unusual angles. During the 1930s, images created by Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and others made clear to government agencies and commercial clients that women could excel as photographers. In 1943, Stryker promoted Bubley to the position of OWI field photographer. She contributed more than 2,000 images to the OWI file over the course of that year. In these early photo-essays, Bubley’s ability to capture people in natural, unaffected poses is evident. She immersed herself in her assignments, touring on buses for weeks to document American bus travel and profiling a serviceman’s family at home. When Roy Stryker left the OWI in late 1943 to establish a photographic library for the Standard Oil Company, Bubley followed, documenting the impact of the oil industry around the U.S. and beyond.

Esther Bubley, At the well-baby clinic, 1953; Gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 1/2 in.; Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family; © Standard Oil (New Jersey) Collection #76624; Photographic Archives, University of Louisville; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Esther Bubley, At the well-baby clinic, 1953; Gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 1/2 in.; Gift of Kenneth and Lori Polin and Family; © Standard Oil (New Jersey) Collection #76624; Photographic Archives, University of Louisville; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

One of her best-known assignments for Standard Oil depicted life in Tomball, Texas. Living in the town for six weeks, Bubley took more than 600 pictures documenting the town’s commerce, industry, schools, churches and recreation. In her photographs, Tomball’s citizens appear natural and unaffected, often unsmiling or not looking at the camera—a reflection of the artist’s ability to work unnoticed.  By the late 1940s, Bubley was shooting features for Life, Ladies’ Home Journal and other magazines, in addition to corporate assignments for Pepsi, Pan-American Airways and UNICEF, among others. In the years before the advent of television, popular magazines with pictures provided a window to the world through “picture-stories.” Bubley frequently contributed photographic essays, adding clever and observant captions shaped from the copious notes she wrote while taking pictures.   Bubley contributed 12 stories to the Ladies’ Home Journal series “How America Lives.” Between 1948 and 1960, the occasional series attempted to represent the diversity of American life, profiling families and their challenges, which ranged from raising children to buying a home to facing divorce. One of Bubley’s stories in this series focused on the Rood family of Wahoo, Nebraska, where Bubley once again immersed herself in the town and the family, living with them for several weeks. To tell the Roods’ story of successfully paying off their farm’s mortgage, Bubley portrayed them working the land, attending school and sitting down to family dinners and game nights.

Esther Bubley, Children waiting for their mother to finish shopping, 1945; Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in.; Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Standard Oil (New Jersey) Collection #26162; Photographic Archives, University of Louisville; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Esther Bubley, Children waiting for their mother to finish shopping, 1945; Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in.; Gift of Robert and Kathi Steinke; © Standard Oil (New Jersey) Collection #26162; Photographic Archives, University of Louisville; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Bubley published 40 stories in Life, the most prestigious photographic newsmagazine in the mid-20th century. Energetic and highly determined, Bubley won third place in Life’s annual “Young Photographers Contest” in 1951 and landed her first cover within the same year. Despite the otherwise scant representation of women on Life’s roster of photographers, she became a regular. Finding art in everyday life, Esther Bubley created candid, compelling photographs that have endured beyond their time.  Esther Bubley Up Front, presented in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is organized by the museum and generously supported by its members. 

National Museum of Women in the Arts Founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, NMWA is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum’s collection features 4,700 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker and Nan Goldin, along with special collections of 18th-century silver tableware and botanical prints. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit nmwa.org. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students.

Cover Photo: 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