Researching the life of Julia Wilbur has led me on the trail of learning about other accomplished, less-known women. One is photographer Esther Bubley (1921-1998).
At the height of her career, from the 1940s through the 1960s, Bubley traveled in the U.S. and abroad taking deeply revealing photographs of seemingly everyday life. She was the proverbial fly-on-the-wall as the people in her images—and almost all her photos do have people in them—take no notice of her lens.
In 1945, 24-year-old Bubley spent 3 months in the town of Tomball, Texas. She took hundreds photos of people working, praying, playing, and otherwise getting through their days.
Last week, thanks to a business trip in Texas, I went to see what, if any, traces of what she saw exist. A few building do; in fact, I went into a small coffee shop that was the Tomball Electric Supply Company in 1945. But this oil company town is now an exurb of Houston.
Based on the photos she took as part of a documentary photo project for Standard Oil of New Jersey, that change is both good and bad.
The idea behind this series of photos—along with many others in the 1930s and 1940s—came from Roy Stryker. Stryker moved to New Deal Washington by way of a wide-open Colorado childhood and a graduate degree in economics from Columbia: in other words, from small-town America via the big-city academic enterprise.
During the 1930s, he realized strong visual images could build support for New Deal policies. Working for the government, he had money to hire talented photographers to travel to farms, farm towns, and camps across the country. Images showed (most famously) migrant mothers, bleak Dust Bowl farmyards, and beaten-but-not-broken farmers by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans. Newspapers, posters, brochures, and magazines used the images, but Stryker also wanted to develop an archive for posterity. Our images of America at that time, whether we realize it or not, come in many ways from Roy Stryker.
When America entered World War II, Stryker had to change his directions to his photographers, from depicting people surviving the economic disaster to contributing to the war effort on the home front. While some excellent, evocative photos came out of that change (including many by Esther Bubley, then a junior member of the cohort), Stryker faced a bureaucratic and budgetary squeeze. He left federal employment in 1943.
His writings show a man not afraid to fight it out; maybe he would have stayed but another offer came from Standard Oil of New Jersey. A “PR man” named Earl Newsom advised the company to, among other things, build a photographic collection that could be reprinted—at no cost to the requester—to put a human face on their dealings. He offered Stryker the job to direct the project. As he did for the government, Stryker sent photographers far and wide to illustrate “a drop of oil in everything.” That saying can lead to a wide array of subjects.
While some of the assignments were a bit of a stretch, it made perfect sense to document life in a town like Tomball.
A popular magazine called Coronet ran a group of Esther’s photos under this title. After oil was discovered under Tomball, the Humble Oil Company built two camps for employees and their families—all white, and stratified by management and labor—were built outside of town, more than doubling the population. The camps held several hundred families from 1933 to 1957, when they closed. Some of the houses were moved into town.
Stryker wanted his photographers to understand where they were going. They read background books about history and technology, and they had plenty of time to get the lay of the land before they started taking pictures. They asked questions or simply stayed long enough to hear things or have people start volunteering information.
Visiting Tomball last week made me think about what Esther Bubley accomplished. She drove into a town that, yes, saw some influx and outflow of workers, but was hardly a place where a person could be anonymous. Here she came—a young woman driving in from the north with a camera, lights, and other equipment. Picture that in a small town today, then go back 70 years when the country was still in the War. (Most of the photos I took last week had no people—from shyness, lack of talent, and worry about photo releases.)
Remember, too, that she shot with film that had to be developed later, not the digital, see-immediately images of today.
Although she kept field notes of names, places, and descriptions, her field notes did not reveal her opinions. The photos must tell the story. They show strong family and friendship ties. They show men hard at work, and kids hard at play. But the few African Americans photographed are on the margins, certainly not living in the camps or working the more lucrative positions. Among both blacks and whites, there’s a not-so-occasional barefoot child amidst others with shoes.
In the early 1980s, author Nicholas Lemann tracked down some of the people in Esther’s photos. He wrote that they tell of a time when “there was an order to life, and a comfort that came from not wondering whether things were as they should be.”
Last week, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express and used the library at Lone Star Community College. I bought chocolate at a busy restaurants downtown and saw preparations for the annual Tomball German Christmas Market, to be held the following weekend. In the building of the Tomball Electric Company, I had coffee at Re:Bar, a place set up as much for community-gathering as dispensing food and drink. All quite different than the images that Esther took in 1945—or is it?
Esther Bubley archive (www.esterbubley.com)
Out of the Forties by Nicholas Lemann
“Revealing Landscapes” by Naomi Romig (Master’s thesis, University of Texas)
Roy Stryker, U.S.A., 1943-1950, by Steven Plattner
Roy Stryker Papers, Originals at University of Louisville, microfilm at Library of Congress