In 1942, twenty-one-year-old Esther Bubley, accepted a position with the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington, D.C. to work as a darkroom lab technician.
The OWI had recently absorbed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and their stable of legendary documentary photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee, among others.
The OWI had shifted the focus of the photographers’ assignments away from rural poverty to various facets of the war effort, including aircraft factories and broader aspects of American infrastructure such as railroads.
In 1943, the agency sent Bubley on a six-week bus trip to document the country’s transition between the Great Depression and World War II.
Public transportation had seen a sharp increase in ridership with wartime rationing of rubber and gasoline, and Bubley’s unassuming demeanor and inclination for photographing ordinary people and daily life paired well with the close quarters of bus travel.
“Put me down with the people, and it’s just overwhelming,” Bubley once exclaimed in an interview. On assignment, she rode crowded buses throughout the country, using her square format Rolleiflex camera to capture intimate and empathetic images of bus riders on routes throughout the Midwest and the southern United States.
As her bus loaded in Washington, D.C., that September, the driver started punching tickets at the back of the crowd where Bubley had been waiting, so she got a front seat.
She wrote in an essay about her trip, “Across the aisle, two boys of about twelve and fourteen were hoisting their bags onto the rack. A middle-aged woman came in and sat down with me, then turned toward the back and started asking her daughter if she would like trying the front seat.
‘We’re going sightseeing in Gettysburg,’ she explained, ‘and I don’t want her to miss anything.’ Daughter had discovered a soldier, however, and was quite satisfied with a seat near the back.”
Bubley wrote of the people, “Most passengers, traveling a long distance, seemed to be on vacation. Several were just ‘seeing the country.’ A large share of the vacationing people were going to or from Army camps to visit sons, boyfriends and husbands.”
She added that there was also a lot of local traffic: “Children ride the bus from farms and small towns to school, people living in the country and working in town hail the bus on the highway daily.”
A number of the photographs offer stark reminders of racial segregation and the realities of the era. Much of Bubley’s recognition rests on her work from this early assignment, which remains an elegant and sincere look at life in 1940s America.
Bubley later revisited the sphere of interstate travel in her award-winning 1947 photo essay Bus Story.
Outside of her contributions to the OWI, Bubley worked with numerous magazines and corporate clients during the course of her career, including Life magazine, UNICEF, Standard Oil Company, and Pepsi-Cola.
(Photo credit: Esther Bubley / Library of Congress / SFO Museum).