Dissin’s Guest House: A Home Away from Home for Jewish Defense Workers | Esther Bubley, Photographer

August 24, 2017 - November 4, 2017

Esther Bubley’s Photographs of Dissin’s Guest House A Home Away from Home for Jewish Defense Workers in Wartime Washington, DC

Esther Bubley’s photographs of Dissin’s Guest House effectively launched her career. They offer a rare and intimate view into the life of World War II’s “government girls”―the young female clerks, typists, and stenographers who kept the wartime bureaucracy running. Bubley made these images in 1943, when she was a 22-year-old aspiring documentary photographer at the Office of War Information (OWI).

Because her older sister Enid was a resident of Dissin’s, Bubley had a unique opportunity to show how the boarders lived. Her sensitive portrayal of the boarding house offers a rare, intimate glimpse into the lives of young defense workers who came to Washington from all over the United States. These images launched her career as a documentary photographer, convincing Roy Stryker, her boss at the Office of War Information, (OWI) to move her out of the darkroom and into the field. Stryker was sufficiently impressed with the Dissin’s photographs to include them in the OWI archive. Years later, when asked why she chose Dissin’s, she replied, “Because it was easy.” Her sister lived there, and she was already a frequent visitor.

About Esther Bubley (1921–1998)

Born in 1921 in Phillips, Wisconsin, Esther Bubley was the fourth of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants, Louis and Ida Bubley. Bubley’s interest in photography, which began in high school, developed in college during her two years at Superior State Teachers College and a third year studying art and photography at the Minneapolis College of Art. In 1941 at age twenty, she ventured to New York City to become a professional photographer.

Bubley’s career began in earnest a year later when, at age 21, she was hired as a darkroom assistant to Roy Stryker, whose government photography unit had recently been transferred from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to the Office of War Information (OWI). Stryker quickly promoted Bubley to staff photographer, and in 1943, when he left Washington to set up a photographic library in New York City for the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), she and other members of Stryker’s team followed him there. In New York, Bubley embarked on a freelance career, working for corporations, major magazines such as Life and Ladies’ Home Journal, and practicing “documentary advertising,” a short-lived trend well suited to Bubley’s spontaneous style of 35mm photography.

Bubley travelled across the United States as well as internationally on photographic assignments. In 1947, she began a longstanding relationship with the Children’s Bureau, a federal child welfare agency, for which she built a file of several thousand images. In 1950, when Stryker moved to Pittsburgh to establish another photographic library, he turned first to Bubley for contributions. In 1953, UNICEF hired her to document a pioneering medical initiative in the remote Berber communities of the Moroccan desert. After 25 years of exhausting travel and Herculean productivity, Bubley stopped traveling and worked in semiretirement in New York City from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when poor health curbed her work.

About Jean Bubley, Curator

Jean Bubley is the niece of photojournalist Esther Bubley and the owner and director of the Esther Bubley photographic archive. Since inheriting the archive in 1998, Jean has endeavoured to preserve and promote her late aunt’s work. This presented a challenge because, like most photojournalists of her era, Esther Bubley was not fastidious about the way she stored and labelled her prints and negatives. Jean found herself in possession of a pile of boxes with labels like “mothers with one child” and no indication of when or why the images were made.

Jean put together a team of experts in art history and photographic preservation, and they rehoused the prints and negatives in archival containers, launched a website, and set about identifying the images. Their efforts resulted in the

exhibition Esther Bubley, American Photojournalist at the UBS Gallery in New York City in 2001, the publication of Esther Bubley: On Assignment by Aperture in 2005, and the placement of Esther Bubley’s work in the collections of numerous prestigious museums including the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC and the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles.

NOTE: Exhibition images were selected by Tracy Schmid, archivist of the Bubley estate.