After attending Superior State Teachers College in Wisconsin from 1937 to 1938, Esther Bubley left her hometown of Superior in 1939 to study painting at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she became interested in photography. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Bubley was influenced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs of the Depression that she saw in periodicals. After she moved to New York in 1940 to become a photographer, Edward Steichen helped her to obtain freelance work shooting still lifes for Vogue. Relocating to Washington, D.C., in 1941, she was employed as a microfilmer for the National Archives. Unhappy with the routine of that work, on her own time she photographed the capital preparing for war. Roy Stryker, head of the FSA photographers, saw these images and hired her as a darkroom technician.
With Stryker as a mentor, Bubley became a documentary photographer. By 1943 she was a staff photographer for the Office of War Information (OWI), the government agency that absorbed the photographic activities of the FSA. On assignment for the OWI, she took a six-week bus trip through the southern states. As Martha Hopkins, exhibit director at the Library of Congress, writes, Bubley "produced hundreds of images of a country in transition from the doldrums of the Great Depression to the fevered pace of war." In 1943, when Stryker left the federal government to direct Standard Oil of New Jersey's photographic project, he hired Bubley. She remained on the job until 1950, when Stryker left to head the Pittsburgh Photographic Library project and offered her a position. Like Bubley's other work, the Pittsburgh photographs show warmth and affection for the men, women, and children she depicted. She often worked in a photo-essay format, telling a story through a number of images.
In 1951 Bubley started freelancing for national magazines such as Life, Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, and U.S. Camera, as well as for the Encyclopedia Britannica. A New York City resident, she is particularly fond of photographing people in Central Park. As she once noted, "I like to do pictures of people."