This must be the only photograph in the vast archives of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information [FSA/OWI] that can be described as dreamy, romantic, and frankly erotic. Esther Bubley made it in January 1943, when she was just 21. (The young woman in the photo is very possibly one of Bubley’s sisters, two of whom lived in this boarding house and appear in several of her boarding house photos.)
Esther Bubley. Washington, D.C. A radio is company for this girl in her boardinghouse room. January 1943. All photos from the Congress Farm Security-Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress. (Click directly on the photo to see a larger version.)
At the time, Bubley was working for Roy Stryker in a darkroom at the Office of War information [OWI]. But that’s not where she wanted to be. She wanted to be in the field, working as a documentary photographer. When she was teenager, photos in the pages of Life magazine and those made by Stryker’s great documentary team in the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration [FSA]--Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, and others--fired her imagination and inspired her to become a photographer. She had found her way to the OWI after attending a teachers college, in Wisconsin, an art school, in Minnesota, and working briefly and unsuccessfully as a product photographer for Vogue magazine. Jobless and alone, she left New York, in 1942, and joined two of her sisters in Washington, DC. She found work microfilming documents at the National Archives. Quickly spotting her frustration, as well as her talent and ambition, a supervisor introduced her to Stryker, who agreed to take her on as a darkroom technician at the OWI, his documentary project’s new bureaucratic home.
Determined to move out of the darkroom and into the status of field photographer, Bubley devoted much of her free time to photography. It was an intensely productive period in the young photographer’s life. One of the results was a series of photos made at Dissin’s, a boarding house that catered Jewish young people, including Bubley’s sisters Claire and Enid.
Esther Bubley. Washington, D.C. A boardinghouse rule forbids men guest to come into girls' rooms and vice versa. March 1943.
Later in life, Bubley said that she chose the boarding house project because her sisters live there and “it was easy to do.” (See, Bonnie Yochelson and Tracy A. Schmid, Esther Bubley: On Assignment.) But there was more to it than that. Bubley understood that World War II was causing large-scale changes in American society. The expansion of industries and bureaucracies to serve war needs were drawing millions of people into cities all over the country. The population of Washington, DC, for instance, grew by 300,000 people, during the war, many of them young women like Bubley and her sisters. Among the social changes were a new opportunities for women, in employment and in terms of their personal autonomy.
Bubley was aware of these changes. After all, she and her sisters were themselves among the millions of young people who left farms and small towns to seek a new world in the cities. In notes that she wrote to accompany the photos that she made at Dissin’s, she said that the residents came “from all parts of the country--California to New York. There are a few young men living in the house, and romance flourishes.” Despite the hint of scandal in the photo above, Bubley’s view of the boarding house was benign. In factl, her sister Enid met her husband there. (Bonnie Yochelson and Tracy A. Schmid, Ester Bubley: On Assignment.)
The boarding house series worked its magic. Stryker promoted Bubley to field photographer soon after seeing them.
Esther Bubley. Washington, D.C. Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill, a bar and restaurant waiting for a pickup. April 1943. Bubley’s notes quote the woman as saying: "I come in here pretty often, sometimes alone, mostly with another girl, we drink beer, and talk, and of course we keep our eyes open--you'd be surprised at how often nice, lonesome soldiers ask Sue, the waitress, to introduce them to us".
Jacqueline Ellis is among the people who have noted the “Hopperesque visual language” of the Sea Grill photo. (See, Jacqueline Ellis, Silent Witness.) In saying that, she’s not referring to the light or the clarity of the photo, which are entirely alien to Hopper's paintings. She’s pointing to the pensiveness, loneliness, and whiff of regret that we can see in the woman’s face. Like Hopper’s women, Bubley’s woman waits.
Esther Bubley. Washington, D.C. April 1943. Bubley’s notes: "Girl who has picked up two soldiers since coming into the Sea Grill alone. They are drinking beer and exchanging life histories."
But unlike Hopper’s women, Bubley’s young woman didn’t wait long, at least not on this night in April 1943.
With the exception of “A Radio for Company,” the image at the top of the page, “erotic” is the wrong word for most of these images. They do, however, deal forthrightly with sexuality. More so than any other FSA/OWI photographer, Bubley explored wartime changes in the social geography of sex. Her gaze was direct, and, with a few exceptions, she neither scolded nor romanticized her subjects.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, Andrea Fisher wrote the tremendous differences between Bubley’s urban women in wartime America and the rural and small town women of the FSA’s Depression-era photography: “In their self-conscious sensuality, [Bubley’s] women are far afield from the destitute migrant mothers of the 1930's.” Indeed they were. The Depression was over and the nation was at war. New opportunities allowed women (and men) to create new selves and new ways of being. History--the nation’s, the world’s, and her own--had put Bubley in the perfect position to document the changes.
Esther Bubley. Washington, D.C. A picture-taking machine in the lobby at the United Nations service center. January 1943.
To judge from this photograph, the changing landscape of sexuality and gender roles, during WWII, was no easier for men to navigate than for women.
Gordon Parks. Portrait of Esther Bubley, c. 1943.