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.
Many of us keep somewhere in our home a dust-covered carton crammed with decaying photographs that reveal the complex stories of our long-ago lives. The dread that attaches to these cartons — the reason they are seldom visited — is understandable. Experience tells us that the fading images stored within are bound to trigger good memories but, almost surely, some bad ones as well. They are fraught. I want to come back to them in a moment.
But first: Do you recall the Polaroid Corporation, maker of the instant cameras that were ubiquitous not so long ago? Polaroid went bankrupt in 2008. The internet and smartphones killed its business. Who needed pictures on disposable paper when you could endlessly manipulate your snaps on a hard drive or the web? Well, shock of shocks, Polaroid is back. Remarkably, it has lots of competition. Several well-known companies have joined the new Polaroid in selling inexpensive cameras that once again afford us the pleasure of taking poorly composed pictures that we can hold in our hands seconds later.
To touch a physical photo is, in some way, to be touched by it, instantly.
As it turns out — and this is wonderful, I think — the purity and imperfections of on-paper photographs retain a magic that’s not duplicable. There’s something ineffably satisfying about their tactile quality. Run your fingers across their surface! Don’t they feel timeless? To touch a physical photo is, in some way, to be touched by it, instantly.
Which brings me back to the trove many of us warehouse in our homes. In my own case, that means the thousand or so crinkled photos that have survived multiple moves around the country. The pictures are unorganized and, most of them, uncaptioned. Recently, when I experienced an unaccustomed impulse to meditate on my life journey, I screwed up the courage to pry open the bin for the first time in many years.
Along with pictures of me in school, in the company of girlfriends, traveling, attending family celebrations, and so on — an array of stills documenting a not atypical lower-middle-class upbringing — I also found what I knew I would: Here were the painful visual reminders of too many tragedies.
For a few hours I reviewed (and wept over) pictures of uncles murdered in the Holocaust, a favorite aunt who died young, a mother in the throes of a debilitating disease, an ex-wife who passed following a brief illness just this year. And then, haphazardly, I plucked from the pile a picture of my father, who had died unexpectedly during surgery. Somehow, I’d never seen that particular image before: “Pops” looking incredibly cool in his driving cap, at the steering wheel of a car on an unknown highway. Exactly as I remember him. It stole my breath.
Shimmering brightly on a modern flat screen, these pictures would have delivered far less wallop. However, to pinch them between my fingers, to hold them up to the lambent light of a late afternoon …
When at last I returned them all to their bin, two thoughts came into sharp focus. Photos of people we love are vastly more consequential than pictures of places and objects we love. And pictures on paper hit the heart harder than pictures displayed on glass screens. Now, more than ever, I believe these things to be manifest.
In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about the Slow Movement.
This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: “It stole my breath.” This image of the author’s dad, “looking incredibly cool in his driving cap,” captured the man exactly as remembered. (Photo courtesy of Cable Neuhaus)
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Featured image: Library of Congress