The chaos and beauty of Greyhound buses captured by Esther Bubley, 1943

bus story esther bubley photos

A Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh.

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.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers wait to board a Greyhound bus at a small town in Pennsylvania.

“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.”

bus story esther bubley photos

The Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.

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.

bus story esther bubley photos

A Greyhound bus in Columbus, Ohio.

bus story esther bubley photos

Greyhound drivers kill time between runs at the station in Columbus, Ohio.

bus story esther bubley photos

A Greyhound station in Indianapolis.

bus story esther bubley photos

A woman waits for a bus at the Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

At the Greyhound terminal in Cincinnati.

bus story esther bubley photos

A soldier sleeps in a luggage rack on a bus from Cincinnati to Louisville.

bus story esther bubley photos

A soldier sleeps on a bus from Cincinnati to Louisville.

bus story esther bubley photos

Sailors purchase Greyhound tickets in Chicago.

bus story esther bubley photos

A daily student commuter on a Greyhound bus from Louisville to Memphis.

bus story esther bubley photos

The Greyhound station in Rome, Georgia.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers on a bus from Louisville to Nashville.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers board Greyhound buses in Cincinnati.

bus story esther bubley photos

Porters load luggage on a bus in Chattanooga.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers board buses at the Memphis Greyhound station.

bus story esther bubley photos

A Greyhound driver checks tickets in Columbus, Ohio.

bus story esther bubley photos

A bus departs from Knoxville, Tennessee for Washington, D.C.

bus story esther bubley photos

A Memphis-Chattanooga Greyhound bus.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers tell jokes on the way from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.

bus story esther bubley photos

A bus en route from Knoxville, Tennessee to Washington, D.C.

bus story esther bubley photos

A pillow girl at the Greyhound terminal in Chicago.

bus story esther bubley photos

A mother and daughter who sell pillows to travelers in Knoxville.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers wait for a bus at the Memphis terminal.

bus story esther bubley photos

A student waits for the bus in a small town in Tennessee.

bus story esther bubley photos

A schedule at a bus depot in Ohio.

bus story esther bubley photos

Men buy Greyhound tickets in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

A woman waits for a pickup between Louisville and Memphis.

bus story esther bubley photos

The Greyhound station in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

bus story esther bubley photos

A woman hails a Macon-bound bus on a highway in Georgia.

bus story esther bubley photos

A young passenger on a Tennessee Coach Company bus in Knoxville.

bus story esther bubley photos

A sailor and child wait for a Greyhound in Memphis.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers wait to board a bus from Knoxville, Tennessee to Washington, D.C.

bus story esther bubley photos

The Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

Passengers wait to board a bus from Knoxville, Tennessee to Washington, D.C.

bus story esther bubley photos

A worker who cleans buses at the Greyhound garage in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

A worker mops a bus at the Greyhound garage in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

A worker cleans the windshield of a bus at the Greyhound garage in Pittsburgh.

bus story esther bubley photos

A passenger watches luggage being unloaded from a bus that broke down in a small town in Pennsylvania.

bus story esther bubley photos

On the road from Columbus to Cincinnati.

(Photo credit: Esther Bubley / Library of Congress / SFO Museum).