Esther Bubley: Washington, D.C. Small boys watching the Woodrow Wilson high school cadets. 1943. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
When I first started writing about Bubley, I was drawn to her by the facts of her life as much as by her photographs. Here was a young woman -- barely in her twenties -- from a small town in the midwest and with little to show in the way of experience and training, who talked her way into a job with Roy Stryker's legendary Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information documentary project. It's a great story.
But her photos are even better. Here's what I had to say about the first set that she did for Stryker, an exploration of relations between men and women in wartime Washington, DC. It was an audition, of a sort; she was trying to move out of the darkroom and into the field: The photographs "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."
Esther Bubley: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Greyhound Bus Lines mechanic. 1943.
For a while, "drama" and "theater" seemed perfectly adequate as one of the ways of talking about Bubley's photos. Of course, they weren't the only ways of talking about them.
Esther Bubley: Washington, D.C. Pearl Ginsburg refused to have her boardinghouse rent raised. 1943.
I also loved the way that she worked with people, alternating between distance and intimacy.
Esther Bubley: Washington, D.C. The Campbell family at home after church. 1943.
But the more I looked at photos like this portrait of the Campbell family, the more I felt that "theatrical" wasn't quite the right word. Not for a photo as self-consciously lighted and arranged as this one (which is one of many like it).
Esther Bubley: A Greyhound bus trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Memphis, Tennessee, and the terminals. Hailing a Macon-bound bus on the highway in Georgia. 1943.
When I saw this image, I realized what I was missing. Bubley wasn't thinking about the theater, she was thinking about movies. When she made images like the ones in this post (and the ones that I linked to above), she was making film stills, although she probably wouldn't have put it that way. "Hailing a Macon-bound bus" could almost be a photo from the set of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra's great 1934 screwball comedy.
Afterthought: Perhaps Bubley did have something cinematic in mind. She worked the scene hard, producing four images of the same woman, shot from different angles and distances. "Hailing a Macon-bound bus" isn't the only one that feels like a film still.
Esther Bubley: A Greyhound bus trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Memphis, Tennessee, and the terminals. Girl waiting for bus by road's edge. 1943. (This photo, unlike the others in this post, is not available as a high-resolution download from the Library of Congress.)
Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #48. 1979. Copyright Cindy Sherman.
Think of film stills, and you think of Cindy Sherman, of course. The Untitled Film Still series that she made in the 1970s catapulted her to art world fame.
The parallels between "Hailing a Macon-bound bus" and Untitled Film Still #48 are striking. I have no idea whether or not Sherman had ever seen any of Bubley's photos. (Probably, yes. Bubley achieved modest fame of her own, especially within the photographic community.) But I doubt that Sherman was familiar with "Hailing a Macon-bound bus." It's not one of Bubley's better known images. Sherman, I'm guessing, was simply responding to the power and pervasiveness of Hollywood's cliches. Just as Esther Bubley had.
John Vachon: Portrait of Esther Bubley. 1944.
To notice that Bubley carefully arranged some of her photos -- posing her subjects and lighting them for maximum dramatic effect -- is to direct our attention to the cinematic qualities of many of her photos. It's also important to say that it doesn't diminish the photos documentary value.
There are two points to keep in mind. First, the FSA/OWI generation of photographers were inventing the rules of documentary work as they went along. Posing and lighting subjects wasn't an ethical problem for them, as it would be for some, but not all, photographers who came later. They would have asked themselves, instead, if they were being honest to the situation and not unfairly distorting its meaning.
Second, no photo is a transparent record of objective reality. The camera always lies. (At the very least, it flattens three-dimensional reality.) Photographers are always subjective. (They choose, at the very least, where to point the camera and when to press the shutter.)
Good photographers -- like Bubley and the other FSA/OWI photographers -- would have understood that objectivity is elusive. If they succeeded at being honest, at reining in their subjectivity -- and I think that they did -- it was because they worked hard at it. Research balanced art; heart balanced mind.
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N.B. All of Bubley's photos in this post are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, at the Library of Congress. Photos made by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information photographers are not under copyright.