( All Photos: Esther Bubley, 1951)
The Pittsburgh Photographic Library was founded to 1950 with a single mission: to document urban renewal in the Steel City. But its founding director, Roy Stryker, a Columbia University economist with a background in public relations, was also a photographer with an eye for undiscovered talent. This led to the hiring of photojournalists who could produce something more than business booster shots. A current exhibit at The Frick Art & Historical Center shows just how much more a great photographer can bring to the most ordinary assignment.
The Farm Security Administration and the Standard Oil Company, Stryker had lured such behind the lens luminaries as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Ben Shahn to create iconic images of everyday housewives, farmers, drillers, and truck drivers. So when Stryker chose an unheralded female photographer, Esther Bubley, to put a P.R. spin on the daily grind at Children's Hospital Of Pittsburgh, it wasn't surprising that her work was accomplished. But no one at the library could have predicted the assignment would result in museum quality art.
The Frick has mounted a solo exhibit of Bubley's extraordinary images: Children's Hospital 1951. The simple, black and white photos are astonishing for their immediacy and their somehow artless artistry. Images of children in distress are captured without sentimentality or pity. And there are no Doctor Kildare or Ben Casey dramatics on view here, just the hard work of professionals struggling with a very tough job.
The intimacy of the images, and their profound spontaneity, are startling. Bubley somehow overcame the parental conditioning of children to "smile for the camera." The trick, she said, was "to get them NOT to pose." Bubley's unobtrusiveness (she actually lived in the hospital for nearly a month) led to shots that are more than candid. Her subjects seem as unaware of her observation as objects in a still life.
Esther Bubley's genius as a photographer was her ability to glimpse the elemental in the ordinary. The quaint formality of the 1950's hospital depicted here, with nurses in starched caps and crew cut doctors sporting bow ties, now seems oddly otherworldly. But the simple human suffering and clear eyed compassion captured by Bubley remain all too unnervingly familiar.
Children's Hospital 1951 continues at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh through January 3, 2010.