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.