Harry Truman once said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” This quote has crossed my mind during my years as a local history librarian at the Superior Public Library. I’ve learned that simply opening a drawer and glancing through a file that catches your eye can introduce you to one of Superior’s most talented citizens.
Esther Bubley was born in Phillips, Wisconsin, and moved to Superior in 1931. Her parents, Ida and Louis, operated a general store and tire shop in the North End. Esther first attended Carpenter School on Hughitt Avenue and later Central for her high school years.
She developed an avid interest in art, but her high school art instructor told her she had no talent. Undaunted by this assessment, Esther decided to study art on her own, and the perfect place to start was the Superior Public Library, which, at the time, was just a few blocks from her home on Hammond Avenue. At the library, she was inspired by a new weekly publication called Life, especially their photo essays.
In her senior year, she became the youngest-ever editor of the school yearbook, where she innovated the design and layout. Prior to Esther’s tenure as editor, most photos in the yearbook were standard posed shots. Preferring what she had seen in the pages of Life, Esther began using candid images. She was a tough taskmaster as an editor, often locking her younger brother, Stanley, in a closet until he finished his writing assignments.
It was also during her senior year that Esther won her first photography contest, sponsored by The Evening Telegram. Her photo of a Great Northern steam locomotive earned her first prize at the age of 15.
Following her 1937 graduation, she studied at Superior State Teachers College and worked at a photo-finishing lab in Duluth, saving money to study photography at the Minneapolis School of Art.
After a year at the art school, she traveled to New York City and landed a job at Vogue magazine. One of her first assignments was to take photos of gifts for their Christmas issue. Unfortunately, her career at Vogue was to be short-lived. Accidentally placing her floodlights too close to an expensive vase and breaking it, she was not rehired by the magazine for any more assignments.
Since she had never really wanted a career in fashion photography, Bubley wasn’t too disappointed and, in 1942, she packed her bags and headed for Washington, D.C. Her first job was on the fringes of photography, but she was about to get the first big break of her career.
A friend introduced her to Roy Stryker, a well-known photographer and head of the Office of War Information. Stryker hired her to work in his darkrooms and, after seeing some of her work, he promoted her to field photographer. Her first big assignment was documenting American bus travel during the war. She lived on buses for four weeks, taking photos of employees and passengers as they traveled from one end of America to the other. It was the start of an award-winning career.
Stryker eventually left the Office of War Information and, in 1944, Bubley joined him at his new job with Standard Oil. The company’s pre-war dealings with a German petrochemical company did not sit well with the public, and they were trying to improve their image by documenting the accomplishments of the oil industry.
Bubley was the first woman to win top prize in Popular Photography’s annual contest. She also developed working relationships with Life and Ladies’ Home Journal. Her photos were the cover of Life more than once.
A 1957 assignment brought her back to Superior. Cream of Wheat hired her to shoot pictures for an ad campaign called “Children in Bad Weather.” Using local children as models, she took the pictures in Billings Park. They appeared in the February 1958 issues of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.
Always more comfortable using black-and-white film, Bubley’s career was drawing to a close by the 1960s. Although she died in 1998, acquisition of her work by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as publication of the book Esther Bubley: On Assignment, have continued to introduce her to a wider audience.
It’s nice to think the Superior Public Library played a part in her successful career.