- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

ESTHER BUBLEY: ON ASSIGNMENT

By Bonnie Yochelson with Tracy A. Schmid

Aperture, $35, 96 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY J. ROSS BAUGHMAN

During the 1930s, a petite, dark-haired girl grew up in the American Midwest, studied hard at photography and then, fresh out of school, headed for Washington, D.C. She had been born

to a family of Russian Jewish parents in a house “where all the hardest work took place in the mind.” Instead of turning into a doctor or a lawyer, like others at home intended, she chose the road of art.

So began the life of the impressively talented photographer whose achievements are presented in “Esther Bubley: On Assignment.” The story of her life often reads like a fable and it is certain to inspire those who dream of being paid to take beautiful pictures, as well as those who just enjoy looking at them.

The work of this artist, not so well-known as it should be, is particularly noteworthy because Miss Bubley, more than most photographers, shows us just how photographic subjects should be treated. It can be argued that photojournalists often work quickly, superficially and egotistically, superimposing their own views and sense of style on most if not all they do. But hers was not a photojournalism based on fast initial reactions. She searched much more patiently. The answers for Miss Bubley came from the heart, and she focused on facial expressions and body language.

Her best photographs surfaced from her inner sense of things, and from the very serious inner world of young children. She felt perfectly at home wearing doctor’s scrubs, and peering over their shoulders during surgery. She also found fruit in the domestic struggles and harmonies between men and women. She made rather complete narrative statements by photographing her dog.

Within the history of photography, there are honored spots for a bullet caught exploding through an apple. Her better-known colleagues chased after headlines around the world. But perhaps what viewers crave most is a sense of the intimate, enhanced and heightened by an aura of invisibility, and Miss Bubley succeeded best quite close to home.

Her trusting subjects ranged from high school dropouts to Albert Einstein, from berry pickers to Miss America. Her very first picture story, which happened to be for the legendary Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, centered on her own sister. Seventy-five such pictures have been assembled for this book, along with many of the original magazine layouts.

To be sure, Miss Bubley took many pictures during the 1940s and 50s that were also purely graphic, reactive and on those terms, pictorially successful. But she wouldn’t settle for that. Beneath every assignment, with every shot of the camera she would seem to ask herself “Why?” and “So what?” With her camera as a tool, Esther Bubley was able to capture private thoughts and make them clear, just as one might choose to entrust them with a best friend.

“I found the best procedure was to take a few pictures, then answer the questions of the curious as to what I was doing and why,” wrote Miss Bubley, then “to stand around and wait until my subjects got thoroughly bored with me and went back to their own conversations or interests.”

It was this fresh approach that came to the attention of the editors at Life magazine, the premier showcase for visual reporting during its heyday. They assigned her to some 40 stories. When they could not absorb any more of her productivity, she turned to The Ladies’ Home Journal, which bent its own style and made room for a dozen of Miss Bubley’s picture stories.

She became a favorite at the Museum of Modern Art. Its director of photography, Edward Steichen, himself a highly regarded photographer, fit scores of her photos into three important exhibits, including the landmark Family of Man show in 1955. Pepsi Cola turned her into a high-paid corporate photographer, sending her across six continents to document their spreading empire.

Yet, according to the biographical notes by Bonnie Yochelson that accompany this slim volume, Miss Bubley “did not dwell on the politics of her employers … . Bubley always explained who she was and for whom she was working … she approached each situation with genuine interest and curiosity. Sensing this, her subjects trusted her and revealed themselves. Because of her honesty and resolve, Bubley was able to create an unusually rich documentation of mid-twentieth century American life … .”

To her great advantage, Miss Bubley had no idea how difficult her journey should have been, or how remote her chances were for success. Hundreds of capable, hardworking and talented craftsmen had preceded her. And though Miss Bubley never gained the same fame as contemporaries such as Gordon Parks and John Morris, millions of Americans admired her work with regularity. Miss Bubley died in 1998 at the age of 77, rounding out a prolific 40-year career. Yet her legacy lives on in the 50,000 vintage prints, contact sheets, slides and other documents prudently preserved by her estate.

J. Ross Baughman is director of photography at The Washington Times.

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