Esther Bubley: Superior's Unknown DaughterEven with a resume that includes Vogue, LIFE Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal and National Geographic, Superior native Esther Bubley has gone virtually unknown in the Twin Ports.
By: Story by J.L. Kuhlman, photographs courtesy of the Duluth Art Institute, Duluth News Tribune
Even with a resume that includes Vogue, LIFE Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal and National Geographic, Superior native Esther Bubley has gone virtually unknown in the Twin Ports. A photojournalist in the heyday of photojournalism between the 1940s and 1960s, this daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants forged her way in a field not particularly friendly to women.
After graduating from Superior Central High School, Bubley attended Superior State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-Superior) for two years and Minneapolis School of Design for an additional year. At the time, most working women became teachers, court reporters, secretaries or nurses – positions traditionally viewed as female professions.
But not Bubley. She left for New York to pursue a career in photography, a strongly male-dominated field. Despite religious and gender-oriented social barriers, Bubley carved her own personal niche and became successful. She became the protégé of Roy Stryker at the Office of War Information (OWI), beginning in 1942 as a darkroom assistant. When
Stryker left the OWI to work for Standard Oil of New Jersey, he hired several of the photographers, including Bubley.
Bubley primarily composed photojournalism pieces depicting the way Americans live, regular people doing everyday tasks.
"Put me down with people, and it's just overwhelming," Bubley once said of her own work.
Housewives doing tasks in the home, children playing in the streets, patients in a mental institution, people traveling by bus, farmers working their land – none of these were too common for Bubley’s time and attention.
Her work was not intended to give the social elite a window into the world of “the rest of them,” her work was a report of, and for, common America.
In a biographical essay about Bubley, John R. Whiting wrote, “She is not reporting how the lower-middle-brows live for the eyes of Greenwich Village or Radio City. She is reporting a much larger picture of American life – for a much larger audience.”
And much further than the confines of her native Twin Ports. Her first cousin, Allan Apter of Duluth, recalls a visit with her after her renown had spread.
“I had dinner with her once when she was in Minneapolis for an exhibit and came up here to take pictures of ore boats,” he said, describing it as a pleasant time but “nothing more than you would do for any out-of-town visitor.”
Still, the family was well-aware of her accomplishments.
“Oh, certainly. There was an element of pride because she was a recognized photojournalist.”
In addition to her photos depicting American life, Bubley also photographed celebrities, such personalities as jazz musician Charlie Parker. “Though most people don’t recognize her name, they often recognize a particular photograph,” says Samantha Gibb Roff, executive director of the Duluth Art Institute. One of her most iconic images was taken of Albert Einstein on his 74th birthday.
The Duluth Art Institute plans to introduce the Twin Ports to one of its own, Esther Bubley, through an exhibit made possible by a grant from the Depot Foundation. Running from May 12 to August 7, the exhibit will showcase many of her framed prints, some unknown, some surprisingly recognizable. In addition to Bubley’s photos, the Duluth Art Institute will also feature tours, talks and films to accompany the exhibition.