America As It Was: The Photojournalism of Esther Bubley
May 3, 2003 - July 27, 2003
In 1940 at the age of nineteen, a petite, energetic, and determined young woman named Esther Bubley (1921-1998) moved to New York with the dream of becoming a professional photographer. by the time she was thirty, Bubley had become one of the preeminent freelance photographers of America's golden age of photojournalism. In addition to photographing worldwide for prestigious clients including UNICEF, Life magazine, and Standard Oil, she exhibited her images in museums and galleries including New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Bubley's photographs have been shown twice before at the Akron Art Museum: at the beginning of her career in a 1948 traveling exhibition and as part of the 1997 survey of the history of women photographers organized by this museum. Now, thanks to an extremely generous gift from the artist's estate, twenty of the works in this show will remain permanently in Akron as part of the museum's photography collection. Those works, and this exhibition, focus on the America of the 1940s and 1950s. Because Bubley often shot in depth to create photographic stories, her work can provide not just a glimpse but an in-depth look at American life in those days.
Selections from four of her photo essays are included in this exhibition, as well as a few single images. Bubley captured an amazingly broad cross-section of the American public in a 1943 assignment on long-distance bus travel. This story, done while she worked for the federal Office of War Information, proved so popular that Standard Oil commissioned a second version in 1947. Standard Oil also sent her to Texas for six months in 1945, including six weeks in Tomball, an oil boom town near Houston. Her images show that the newly built oil derricks had not yet overshadowed the town's frontier roots or its Norman Rockwell-esque ideal of life in small town America. Finally, Bubley was documenting life in Pittsburgh for a photo archive when she witnessed - and of course photographed - a child's life being saved in the hallway of a children's hospital.
Compassionate by nature, Bubley always strove to give human face to each story she covered. At the same time, a umber of her images subtly and ironically critique American society, suggesting the enormous societal changes that were quietly brewing during those decades. more than a decade before photographer Robert Frank's famous journey across the country, Bubley took a long, hard look at America and the Americans.
This exhibition was organized by the Akron Art Museum and is made possible through the generous contribution from The Jean P. Wade Foundation.