30 Images of Wartime America from a Pioneering Female Photojournalist

Esther Bubley's photographs offer an unvarnished and intimate depiction of the World War II-era homefront.

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When Life magazine printed its first issue in 1936, the cover featured an austere photograph of the newly built Fort Peck Dam shot by Margaret Bourke-White. In a small town in Wisconsin, a teen girl named Esther Bubley saw that cover and decided that she, too, wanted to become a photographer. Her career would span the pages of the country’s leading magazines — Vogue, Life, The Saturday Evening Post — and send the intrepid photojournalist around the globe capturing hundreds of thousands of photos of people and places in the middle century. Today is the centennial of Bubley’s birth. 

Much of Bubley’s work was industrial or commercial — depicting life in company towns for Standard Oil or photographing cute animals and babies for publishing houses. Before she made a name for herself, though, Bubley cut her teeth working as a lab assistant in Washington, D.C. for Roy Stryker, head of the photography project of the Office of War Information. 

In 1943, to prove her acumen to her boss, Bubley used her free time to shoot hundreds of images around the city, and she accompanied them with detailed text that documented the stories of high-schoolers, sailors, boardinghouse tenants, and other everyday people in D.C. He quickly sent her on the road to photograph Greyhound riders and workers. Stryker and Bubley left the OWI later that year to work for Standard Oil, and she left more than 2,000 images for the government’s archives. 

Bubley documented many facets of the U.S. — and the world — throughout her expansive career. She photographed a series on the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital; magazine stories on farmers, single mothers, and teenagers; and tens of thousands of images of workers across the world. Writing about Bubley’s work in American Heritage, Nicholas Lemann noted “an effortless equivalence among subject, photographer, and audience.” 

Her photography has been featured in several exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, and she attracted some attention during her life for her oversized role in photojournalism in the 20th century. Still, Bubley’s life and work remain relatively obscure, and her unique eye for capturing the nuances of everyday American life underobserved. 

In the following images, selected from her work at the Office of War Information in 1943, Bubley’s skill for documenting an unvarnished portrayal of Americans of various walks of life results in an invaluable record of the period.

 

The schedule for use of the boardinghouse bathroom is worked out so that each person has eight minutes in the morning. It is social suicide to ignore the schedule and cause a tie-up like this.
The schedule for use of the boardinghouse bathroom is worked out so that each person has eight minutes in the morning. It is social suicide to ignore the schedule and cause a tie-up like this. Esther Bubley, January 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Soldiers looking out the window of the bus just before leaving the Greyhound terminal
Soldiers looking out the window of the bus just before leaving the Greyhound terminal, Esther Bubley, April 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A unit of the parade to recruit civilian defense volunteers
A unit of the parade to recruit civilian defense volunteers, Esther Bubley, July 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Sunbathers on the sidewalk in the back of Idaho Hall at Arlington Farms,
Sunbathers on the sidewalk in the back of Idaho Hall at Arlington Farms, Esther Bubley, June 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and a soldier at the Memorial Day services,
A WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and a soldier at the Memorial Day services, Esther Bubley, May 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Walter Spangenberg, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, talking to a friend at the Stevens Airport where he takes lesson
Walter Spangenberg, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, talking to a friend at the Stevens Airport where he takes lesson, Esther Bubley, October 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A child whose home is an alley dwelling near the capitol,
A child whose home is an alley dwelling near the capitol, Esther Bubley, July 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A woman in the reading room of a public library,
A woman in the reading room of a public library, Esther Bubley, July 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Passengers on a Greyhound bus going from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
Passengers on a Greyhound bus going from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Passengers in the waiting room of the Greyhound bus station,
Passengers in the waiting room of the Greyhound bus station, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A tailor fitting a coat at the shop maintained in the Greyhound garage. Drivers pay a dollar a month and can have clothes altered, fitted, and pressed at any time.
A tailor fitting a coat at the shop maintained in the Greyhound garage. Drivers pay a dollar a month and can have clothes altered, fitted, and pressed at any time. Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Greyhound bus driver Clem "Bud" Carson. He has been working for Greyhound for one year, since getting a medical discharge from the Army. He works the extra board and earns from 165 to 195 dollars a payday, or every two weeks. He is single, supports his parents and has a small farm just outside of Cincinnati.
Greyhound bus driver Clem “Bud” Carson. He has been working for Greyhound for one year, since getting a medical discharge from the Army. He works the extra board and earns from 165 to 195 dollars a payday, or every two weeks. He is single, supports his parents and has a small farm just outside of Cincinnati. Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Betty Jane Colbert, a worker at the Arcade butcher shop, dismembering a chicken
Betty Jane Colbert, a worker at the Arcade butcher shop, dismembering a chicken, Esther Bubley, June 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Preparing an advisory forecast at the U.S. Weather Bureau. A junior meteorologist assembling plotted sectional weather maps prior to analysis by forecasters.
Preparing an advisory forecast at the U.S. Weather Bureau. A junior meteorologist assembling plotted sectional weather maps prior to analysis by forecasters. Esther Bubley, July 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

The shower bath in a boardinghouse,
The shower bath in a boardinghouse, Esther Bubley, January 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

 Student receiving a dental examination at Woodrow Wilson High School,
Student receiving a dental examination at Woodrow Wilson High School, Esther Bubley, October 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A demonstration of the correct procedure in applying street makeup in a home management class at Woodrow Wilson High School,
A demonstration of the correct procedure in applying street makeup in a home management class at Woodrow Wilson High School, Esther Bubley, October 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Watching a football game
Watching a football game, Esther Bubley, October 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Small boys watching the Woodrow Wilson high school cadets,
Small boys watching the Woodrow Wilson high school cadets, Esther Bubley, October 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A charwoman who cleans buses mopping the floor of a bus at the Greyhound garage,
A charwoman who cleans buses mopping the floor of a bus at the Greyhound garage, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A gas station on the bus route between Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio,
A gas station on the bus route between Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

“Red” Cochran, a Greyhound bus driver, and his family eating Sunday dinner,
“Red” Cochran, a Greyhound bus driver, and his family eating Sunday dinner, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Mechanic at garage of Tennessee Coach Company in Knoxville,
Mechanic at garage of Tennessee Coach Company in Knoxville, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Schoolgirl waiting to get on bus at small town in Tennessee,
Schoolgirl waiting to get on bus at small town in Tennessee, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Members of the congregation during the sermon at the First Wesleyan Methodist Church,
Members of the congregation during the sermon at the First Wesleyan Methodist Church, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Without engaging a hotel room, traveling servicemen may take a shower, shave, and wash and iron clothes at the United Nations service center,
Without engaging a hotel room, traveling servicemen may take a shower, shave, and wash and iron clothes at the United Nations service center, Esther Bubley, December 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Feeding the pigeons in Lafayette Park. This woman has been bringing grain to the pigeons almost daily for thirteen years.
Feeding the pigeons in Lafayette Park. This woman has been bringing grain to the pigeons almost daily for thirteen years. Esther Bubley, December 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Children playing in a fountain in Dupont Circle
Children playing in a fountain in Dupont Circle, Esther Bubley, July 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

A mechanic straightening a bent fender on a bus at the Greyhound garage,
A mechanic straightening a bent fender on a bus at the Greyhound garage, Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

 

Girls entertaining their guests in one of the two card rooms, at a residence for the women who work in the U.S. government for the duration of the war. More privacy is afforded here than in the main lounge.
Girls entertaining their guests in one of the two card rooms, at a residence for the women who work in the U.S. government for the duration of the war. More privacy is afforded here than in the main lounge. Esther Bubley, September 1943, Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

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Comments

  1. I am very disappointed with the Post. I complained several times this year and never got a response. I will not be reordering

    I paid for a subscription, asked for print but never got a magazine or a response. Bad business

  2. As a member and pastor of the former Wesleyan Methodist denomination (currently The Wesleyan Church) I’d love to know what “First Wesleyan Methodist Church” in which the included picture was taken. The town/city ID would probably be sufficient for me to identify it. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this well deserved tribute feature to Esther Bubley, Nicholas. She was indeed a pioneering female photojournalist and her name and wonderful body of work should be kept alive for generations to come. You generously showcase her work here that depicts wide spectrum of American life during World War II in 1943.

    She obviously had tremendous talent at a young age (only 22) when these were taken, and given access not just any photographer would. Had I not known these 30 photos were for The Office of War, I would have immediately thought they were from LIFE.

    It’s quite possible that she was overshadowed in fame as a female photojournalist in large part (don’t know) due to the long shadow Margaret Bourke-White cast with LIFE, even though Ms. Bubley’s works appeared in the magazine as well. Bourke-White was one of LIFE’s original core photographers I believe had been under exclusive contract with them for most of the original weekly’s mid-century run. She passed away not long before LIFE did.

    Certain photographers back then were under contract while others could/would freelance as opportunities presented themselves. One (male) example of this was John Dominis who I know was a LIFE staff photographer, best known for his brilliant wildlife photos and Vietnam War coverage, but also did work for the Post as well.

    Ms. Bubley had the ability to capture people and places in a very natural, unguarded way. Some of my favorites here include the boarding house bathroom wait, the WAVE women, the dental and makeup teens, Sunday dinner, the garage mechanic, lady feeding the pigeons, the charwoman, girls entertaining their guests and the Greyhound bus driver smiling as he reads ‘Tid Bits (of Beauty)’ magazine. One of the most clever names of a magazine I’ve ever heard of!

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