Pearl Ginsburg by Esther Bubley


All I know about Pearl Ginsburg is that she lived in a boarding house in Washington DC in the 1940s and that in January 1943, when this photo was taken, she had refused to have her rent raised. You can see the determination and fatigue in her face. To me, she looks attractive and intelligent; I feel we might have been friends, though maybe we would both have been too stubborn for it to last. Perhaps she worked for the government – I say that because the photographer, Esther Bubley, took other photos of young women who were government employees and lived in boarding houses. It was wartime and lots of young women had jobs and an independence that wouldn’t have been available to them a few years earlier. My sister points out that her arms were unusually hairy. Maybe women didn’t worry so much about body hair back then or maybe she just didn’t care. Anyway, I like her and I like this photo. Sometimes you come across a kindred spirit from another age, through old letters, diaries or photos, and Pearl is one of them for me.

The photo is part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photo Collection, a project that documented the lives of ordinary Americans during the Great Depression and WWII. (There’s a fantastic webpage about this collection here.)  Esther Bubley specialized in this kind of photography and was extraordinarily good at it but when she first approached Life magazine she was told that though her photos were wonderful she didn’t have the right personality. She persevered though and had a successful career doing what she loved. She once said “Put me down with people, and it’s just overwhelming.”