Esther Bubley was born the daughter of an auto supply shop manager in Superior,
Wisconsin in 1921. She studied
painting at the Minneapolis School of Design, before moving to New York City at age 19. She worked temporarily as a photographer for Vogue magazine before moving to Washington, DC in 1941 to work at the National Archives. That same year Roy Stryker hired her as a lab technician for the historical department of the FSA/OWI .
Her journey was different from that of other FSA female
photographers. Jacqueline Ellis,
in her article "Revolutionary
Spaces: Photographs of Working Class Women by Esther Bubley, 1940-1943" states “Bubley’s small-town, lower-middle-class background pales in comparison with Dorothea Lange’s intrepid documentary adventures across the country. Bubley also did not have the advantage of Marion Post Wolcott’s bohemian
education in Greenwich Village and Vienna” (Ellis, 81). Because
Bubley did not have a driver’s license, her work was restricted to Washington, DC and areas she could reach on a Greyhound Bus. On a Greyhound trip to Memphis, “She stood in the aisle precariously balanced as the bus moved along…Consequently, Bubley’s vision was a little lopsided, her view not squarely framed” .
Bubley joined the OWI at
a time of change, when the emphasis on images of rural poverty and the Depression shifted to a wartime emphasis on depicting American wealth and consumerism. Instead of
poverty and sickness, Stryker wanted to show traditional family values, American spirit and patriotism. Bubley took pictures of people at Memorial Day parades, people cheering for volunteers and young men joining the armed forces, soldiers and their loved ones visiting national monuments, and women supporting women while the men were away at war. But Bubley also took a critical look at a society that excluded the marginalized from the patriotic message. She exposed a prejudiced government by focusing on the interactions of
working-class women and minorities who were meant to be excluded from OWI propaganda .
Bus photographs show that migration, race and class divisions persisted in the decade after the Depression. Bubley showed women and children, elderly and black people on the move. She photographed hundreds of people crowded on the bus, in station waiting rooms, restrooms and on bus platforms. Her subjects seem disconnected and isolated from society. They are not mythologized like the dignified suffering workers of the
Depression era in Lange and Post-Wolcott’s work .
In Woman Cleaning the
Interior of a Greyhound Bus, the subject seems to disappear into the dark back of the bus, with her mop pushed out in front of her and the seats like giant walls squeezing her out. The viewer senses she will soon disappear, just like the working-class woman in the narratives of the OWI. Still, the woman’s strength and her forward-thrusting arms signify her quiet determination to invade the space occupied by the passengers .
The OWI wanted to present the white middle-class female as
symbolic of the war effort. Men were fighting a war to protect the pure, chaste women taking care of the home front. Working-class women, on the other hand, were “left out of the loyal, hardworking, efficient and capable image of women during the war” . Women like Bubley’s Girl Sitting Alone in the Sea Grill Waiting for a Pickup were on the fringes of what the government deemed socially and morally acceptable. But in looking away from the camera, crossing her legs and arms, she possesses a self-protective look that puts
her out of reach of the viewer’s moral judgment. The viewer senses the woman’s isolation in spite of the empty seat waiting to be filled next to her, emphasized by the gap between her napkin and her purse. If anyone in the photograph is of questionable character, it is the menacing man peering uninvited through the window behind her head .
Esther Bubley exposed the race and class biases of government-sponsored information. She allowed her subjects to create their own presence, whereby they could disguise themselves and confuse the viewer. Her subjects do not remain within the frame, thus creating a narrative from their own point of view. “…Bubley radically complicated not only what it meant to be the subject of a documentary photograph, but also what it meant politically, socially and subjectively to be a working-class woman in the 1940s – and beyond” .
The Boarding House Photos
Bubley did not limit her work to her given FSA/OWI assignments. She ventured out on her own at night to create a series of photographs of single women living in boarding houses in Washington, DC. These working-class and lower-middle-class women came from rural Midwestern towns looking for clerical jobs, romance and the excitement of city life. Like migrants, they were viewed as expendable labor . Andrea Fisher analyzes three of these photographs in her book Let
Us Now Praise Famous Women. The poses and flood-lighting of these photographs portray sensuous intensities unlike anything found in earlier documentary photography .
The first is untitled and depicts a blonde woman sitting on a bed in her boarding room. Far from the 30s migrant mother images, she has a distinct sensuality. Bubley’s floodlights strikingly highlight the woman, the walls, the lightbulb and the nude painting on the wall, while shadowing the ominous woman in the corner, creating tension in the scene. The uncovered lightbulb
with its wire halo seems to pick out the blonde woman as an object of the viewer’s gaze. Everything looks artificial. The entire image seems to take pleasure in the artifice of photography .
Bubley’s 1943 photograph Listening to a murder
mystery on the radio in a boarding house room shows a woman looking away from the camera with a vacant, melancholy gaze. Once again bold light and shadows create a feeling of artificiality, and the woman appears as an object. The sign , “Out for a Good Time.” suggests her sexual accessibility. Yet she remains distant, lost in her reverie. “Both the kitsch candle of hope and the bald announcement of her sign lend a double edge to the narratives of a single woman’s life: those hopes at once naively chased and ruefully disdained” .
Another untitled boarding house photo from 1943 shows a woman sitting off-center in her bedroom. Surfaces modulate in the light, emphasizing the sense of her wavering between desire and fantasy. She looks away, lost in reverie, causing our gaze to drift from her. Doors and windows tilt and create a feeling of disorientation. There is a comforting photograph of her parents on the dresser, yet she
turns her back on the truths of home. We see a sullen woman standing ominously in the shadows of the doorway, with light falling on one hand. “… the intruding hand threatens. It poses a crisis in the uniform surface of the image, and thus a crisis in the intimate space of her longings: but is this a danger posed to her, or simply that posed by new desires to the order of her past?” .
Esther Bubley was a product of the working class, and understood this economic group like no other FSA/OWI photographer. She blended in easily with hidden segments of society – boarding house inhabitants and bus riders of all races and not-so-illustrious backgrounds. The lack of a driver’s license did not stop Bubley from pursuing her chosen path. She had no shame in riding the Greyhound Bus, in close physical contact with the poor for hours on end. She had a determination to include the working class in her images in spite of the focus of the OWI on middle- and upper-class subjects. She was unwilling to turn her back on the inequality that the government wanted to sweep under the rug as it carried over from the 1930s. Her most significant work commented on
the hidden side of American society.
Bubley’s photographs of women boarding house residents are
extremely symbolic. They represent above all else a loss of innocence. The subjects appear conflicted in their identities, halfway between an innocent past and a risky, unsafe future, and lost as to where they fit in American society. Just as the entire nation lost the culture of the family farm to the forces of industrialization, these small-town women have to adjust to big-city realities. The conflict is evident in their doubtful expressions, their sadness in spite of being surrounded with objects from home, and their aloneness. Two of the photographs show more sinister, older women watching over them. The older women appear to symbolize harsh reality waiting around the corner to transform these innocent girls. They seem to say “you will become me.” We fear for the blonde woman huddled in her cozy robe from home, facing this imminent danger after leaving
her safe past behind.
Bubley refused to let the world ignore these working-class
women. She exposed the
shortcoming of leaders who decided not to care about them. Because of the artificiality of the lighting she used, there is a sense of the images having a lasting quality that will not fade. Esther Bubley ensured that the women portrayed in her boarding house images would have a strong, enduring visual and psychological impact upon the world.