It’s been a big (if posthumous) year for Esther Bubley.
An American documentary and magazine photographer, Bubley (1921-1998) was first honored by the inclusion of numerous images in the Philips Collection’s recently closed exhibit, “American Moments: Photographs from the Phillips Collection.” Now, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has mounted a solo—though small—retrospective of Bubley’s work.
Bubley got her break working for Roy Stryker, the legendary federal photography honcho, at the Office of War Information. Initially a darkroom assistant, Bubley was later promoted to photographer, using a 35 mm camera to document a wide variety of locales. After the war, she produced regular freelance work for magazines, including some 40 photo essays for Life.
Working at a time when photography was dominated by men, Bubley deserves admiration for breaking into the business. Still, at least judging by the works on display in “Esther Bubley: Up Front,” her work product seems rather less groundbreaking than the fact of her career itself.
Even when on rustic assignments, like her six-week sojourn in the oil-patch town of Tomball, Texas, Bubley often trained her lens on domestic settings such as Boy Scout meetings and hymn singing in church. (It’s also worth noting that Bubley was on assignment for Standard Oil, which may have had an interest in keeping the focus as soft as possible.)
Other domestic material on view includes bustling family kitchens, reflections in boudoir mirrors, and pediatricians’ offices, as well as a couple of charming photographs of newborn puppies that were later incorporated into a 1971 book collaboration, How Puppies Grow. Several other images come from a behind-the-scenes series on the 1957 Miss America pageant.
Perhaps her editors and broader societal norms are the root cause of Bubley’s image selection. Indeed, her personal work in New York City is somewhat more edgy—a cleaner scrubbing the Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Center, for instance, or an image of a lavishly dressed young girl on the sidewalk, heightened by a strongly horizontal crop that renders the other pedestrians anonymous.
Still, the main feeling one gets from seeing this selection of Bubley’s work is a sense of promise lost for a woman born a few decades too early to fully exploit her skills.
Through Jan. 17 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. Mon–Sat 10-5, Sun 12–5.