Lindsay Harris – Fueling the Carbon Empire: Esther Bubley’s Standard Oil Photographs Abroad
From the 1930s through the 1950s, American photographers pushed the boundaries of their medium by recording the human toll of the Great Depression and, later, the impact of World War II on Americans’ daily lives. Typically celebrated as crusaders for social justice, these photographers are seldom recognized for fueling another facet of American society: the nation’s oil industry. In 1943, Standard Oil (New Jersey) commissioned some of the most renowned photographers of their generation to show the benefits of oil in the lives of everyone. Among them, Esther Bubley, a prize-winning magazine photographer, was the only photographer sent to show the reach of American oil in Europe. The pictures she took in Italy and Denmark between 1952 and 1955 show how modernization was transforming the continent’s landscape and culture, including newfound independence for women, one of her principal subjects. They also highlight how women photographers like Bubley shaped perceptions of these changes in the public eye. Above all, this suite of pictures attests to a moment when photographers brought to light the humanity of the “Carbon Empire,” a term Reinhold Martin has coined to describe the oil production system that has provoked war, racialized violence, and climate change across the globe.
Lindsay Harris is the Interim Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome. A historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photography and a 2014 Fellow in modern Italian studies, she served as the Academy’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge of the Humanities through 2018. In that role, Harris curated the Academy exhibition Matera Imagined/Matera Immaginata: Photography and a Southern Italian Town, which traveled to the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna in Matera and to the Italian Cultural Institute in New York. Most recently, she has been developing a paradigm for an open access digital humanities journal with the Digital Publications team at the Bibliotheca Hertiziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome. New ways of publishing research that leverage digital technologies underpin her approach to the material she will discuss in this talk.
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