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Esther Bubley: A Life in Photography
Transcript of interview with Jean Bubley
Filmed in Brooklyn, NY. August 2008
Esther Bubley was a leading photojournalist. She was a reporter who used photographs to tell her story. I'm her niece [Jean Bubley] and the owner and manager of her photo archive. Esther's career spanned the 1940s through the 1960s, which was the "Golden Age" of photojournalism, and it was the time when the illustrated magazines like Life were at the height of their popularity and influence. She had an amazing range. She covered topics as diverse as children at play, bus travel, the oil industry, mental hospitals, and Cape Canaveral. The New York Times said she had a "sober, poetic eye." But she also had a terrific sense of humor, which you can often see in her photographs.
Esther photographed her share of celebrities - Albert Einstein, Sherry Lewis, and Bennie Goodman - but she really preferred photographing ordinary people. Those were her favorite subjects. You can see this fascination in her work early on. In 1943, for example, when she covered the Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, she photographed the spectators almost as much as she photographed the dignitaries.
Esther had a great talent for capturing intimate candid images. This was due in large part to her quiet, unassuming personality. Somehow, she managed to melt into the background, despite all of her big, heavy, clunky, noisy camera equipment. For example, she visited my family once when I was a baby, and my parents were getting annoyed because she didn't seem to be taking any pictures of me. Finally my mother asked, "Well, aren't you going to take pictures of the baby?" To which Esther replied, "I've already taken 40."
When Esther first started out in June of 1941 to become a documentary photographer and photojournalist, she had trouble finding work. Few people wanted to hire a woman as a photographer. By the beginning of 1942, all that changed. The United States had entered World War II. The men went off to war, and women filled the jobs they left behind.
Soon Esther was working for the Office of War Information, or the OWI, which was a federal agency that publicized the country's mobilization for war. Esther's boss there, Roy Stryker, was the genius behind the Farm Security Administration, or the FSA's, photographic section. Their world-famous pictures of the Great Depression have become iconic. All of a sudden, at the age of 21, Esther found herself surrounded by the legendary FSA photographers whom she had admired and sought to emulate since high school.
Esther was really a novice when she started for the Office of War Information. It was really her first real job as a photographer. Nevertheless, her contributions to the project were substantial. She covered the wartime housing shortage, photographing the boarding house where her sister Enid lived. It was a once elegant residence that had been converted to a boarding house to accommodate the influx of wartime workers, mostly young women, who were flooding the capital. She also covered bus travel, which had taken on new importance with the wartime rationing of gasoline and tires.
By 1944, Roy Stryker had moved on to Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), and Esther and a lot of the other OWI photographers followed him. Esther continued working for Standard Oil for the next 20 years, and her work was often used in their in-house magazine, The Lamp.
After the war, when most women were returning to the home, Esther made it to the top of an overwhelmingly male field. She did a lot of work for the Children's Bureau, which was a federal child welfare agency. She also started working for both Life magazine, which was the leading picture magazine at the time, and for the Ladies' Home Journal. The Burlington Railroad sent her to cover the Granger line, which was the railway line linking Chicago to the more western states, going through the Midwestern agricultural areas. UNICEF sent her to Morocco to cover a program to treat the eye disease trachoma. Pepsi-Cola International, which was expanding their bottling operations overseas, sent her to cover Latin America and used her work in their magazine Panorama, which they published for the bottlers. And Pan American World Airways, which was also in their heyday, twice sent her around the world twice to cover their exotic travel destinations.
[Enter archive room and select a box of prints from the shelf. Open the box, take out a print, and hold it up for the camera.] This was Esther Bubley's first story for Life magazine. She photographed a children's choir in Brooklyn [made up of] very young children. [Hold up a print.] This little girl was the cover image on the magazine, Easter 1951. [Hold up another print.] I think this was probably one of Esther's favorite pictures. She said she liked to photograph children who were getting into mischief, and this little choir boy with a scraped nose, packing his six-shooter [is just her type]. Even though this was a cover story, the photo editor at Life didn't want to hire Esther back for any more assignments. He just told her, frankly, you don't have the Life personality, by which he meant that she was too quiet and too reserved. Esther, of course, wanted to do more work for Life. It was the place to have your work shown if you were a photojournalist in the 1950s. So she devised her own plan to get more work. Life was having a young photographers contest, and Esther entered. For her subject she chose the outpatient clinic at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan, and she photographed the people in the waiting room, people having procedures. [Hold up another print.] This little boy was getting a tetanus shot because he stepped on a rusty nail. He has his little brother there for support, [but] it's still pretty scary. [Turn the print over to show the stamp "Life Contest for Young Photographers."] And you can see this particular print is one that was actually shown in the contest. [Hold up another print.] She photographed basically everything that went on in the waiting room and the clinic there. She won third place for a photo series. The judges were very impressed by the empathy and the warmth of these images.
[Resume interview.] After about 25 years of a very hectic schedule, lots of exhausting travel, Esther settled down in New York. She was tired of traveling. The picture magazines by the mid-1960s were being supplanted by television, and Esther concentrated on projects that were of personal interest to her, chief among them her Dalmatian Sheba and Sheba's friends; Central Park, she did a lot of work for the Friends of Central Park who often used her work in their newsletter; and plants, for which she had a special passion.
Esther's photographs are timeless. The way she photographed human emotion, human feeling, just transcends the time in which the photographs were taken. And I still get requests for her images for that reason. Just a couple of years ago, Junior, which is a big, glossy, parenting magazine published in the United Kingdom, used photographs she had taken of Philip Forbes in the 1950s, when he was about a year-and-a-half old, climbing the bookcases, to illustrate an article on toddlers' curiosity. And of course I still get requests for her celebrity photos: Albert Einstein, Charlie Parker, Sherry Lewis, Benny Goodman. Those are always in demand. But photographs that she took of Washington and of New York in the 1950s, of family life in the 1950s, is really an enduring record of what it was like to live in America in that post-war era.
Filmed and edited by S. M. Anderson
Interview assistance: Adam Dow
Special thanks: Tracy Schmid, Laura Handlin, Brian McDermott
Music: Kevin Macleod incompetech.com
Other sound files: Free sound, freescund.iua.upf.edu
Photos from: the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) Collections, ęSpecial Collections, Photographic Archives University of Louisville; the FSA/OWI collection courtesy the Library of Congress, OWI photos by Esther Bubley, photos of the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange, portrait of Roy Stryker by John Collier, photo of E. Rosskam and M. Tinsley by John Collier, photo of FSA files by unknown photographer; all other photos ©Jean Bubley and the Esther Bubley Estate
This film contains copyright protected images, and may not be used without permission.