In 1951, Esther Bubley received an unusual request: She was asked to take pictures of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Keep in mind that 1951 was the zenith of documentary photography. Suburban readers gobbled Life magazine and National Geographic like candy. Home video did not yet exist, so still photos were a cheap alternative to movie cameras. So it's no wonder that the Pittsburgh Photographic Library asked Bubley to explore the hospital's corridors with a simple black-and-white camera.
Children's Hospital 1951, now showing at the Frick Art & Historical Society, is an invaluable collection, partly because Bubley became a well-known photojournalist only after 1951. This series shows off her skills just as Bubley began as a full-time freelancer -- an astounding accomplishment for a woman of the time. The gallery's placards don't say much about Bubley, who later traveled the world and had frequent showings in New York. This is just as well; the deep focus is trained not on Bubley herself, but the world she captured.
Children's Hospital is a kind of sprawling still-life, where nurses and patients are frozen in time, stethoscopes at the ready. In her 20 or so prints, crew-cut doctors wear lab coats, bow-ties and serious frowns; one physician is stirred from his bed, in the middle of the night, by a ringing telephone, and we're left to wonder how the hell Bubley captured such an intimate image. As we peruse the Frick's walls, seeing patients of all colors, shapes and ages, the portraits make the 1950s more real to us than Revolutionary Road ever could.
What's significant about the Children's Hospital series is its ordinariness -- the inpatient drudgery that only a still camera can make dramatic. In "Alberta Reed Waits Her Turn in Allergy Clinic," little Alberta leans against a wooden pew with large, soft eyes, looking both worried and curious. As a little boy cries in his crib, the single tear rolling down his cheek is more eloquent than a nursery full of infant wails.
The one-room exhibit is a whirlwind tour of hospital life -- from patients climbing steps to an emergency tracheotomy on a young girl. This is photojournalism at its best: workaday but startling. In only 20 frames, Bubley still unnerves us, 58 years later.
Children's Hospital is not the headline exhibit, though it ought to be. The Frick's umbrella collection is Icons of American Photography, an anthology of early photographers and their rarer works. There are big names here, plus some stunning landscapes, but compared with Children's Hospital the collection is humdrum. We see the usual daguerreotype portraits of Victorian families, then albumen prints of the Great West. Cliffs tower and lakes reflect like mirrors.
But isn't this the photography we know already -- from wall-calendars, from coffee-table books? Did we really need to borrow a collection from the Cleveland Museum of Art to see an Ansel Adams' portrait of a rising moon? And don't we already expect beautiful composition from America's best-known photographer?
Even the descriptions can be heavy-handed: For "Georgia O'Keeffe, 1933," by Alfred Stieglitz, the painter is pictured leaning against her Ford V-8 convertible. "A potent symbol of her personal freedom," explains the plaque. This may be, but sometimes a car is just a car.
The exhibit's second room offers some clever shots, mostly experiments in geometry and form. We see skyscrapers in New York, a musician's curled fingers and a park blanketed with snow, where skeletal trees rise starkly from the pure white. Icons has smartly separated the early mountain vistas from these later, more geometric visions, and for students of photography, the aesthetics of the second room are valuable study. History fans will also relish these early documents of railroads and lakes. But Icons feels planned, conceited; the portraits are as sturdy and static as the tripods that supported them.
When you visit Icons, save Bubley's section for last. It's worth the wait.
Icons of American Photography and Children's Hospital 1951 continue through Jan. 3. Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412-371-0600 or www.frickart.org.