Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971) was an American photographer and photojournalist most famed for her photo essays taken while traversing the globe for Life Magazine. In addition to being the first female photographer to work on a major magazine, during the "Golden Age of Photojournalism," she accomplished other "firsts" as well. She was the first woman accredited as a war photographer and the first woman to fly on a bombing mission (World War II). During her long and diverse career she covered landmark events of the twentieth century and brought to the world's attention important issues that ranged from poverty in the American South to the horror of Nazi concentration camps.
She was known for her sharp instincts and her willingness to get the story under any circumstances, whether that required sitting on top of a gargoyle on the Chrysler Building in New York City or waiting at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi to take one of her most memorable pictures.
Bourke-White was born in the Bronx, New York, to Joseph White and Minnie Bourke, the daughter of an Irish immigrant ship's carpenter. Her father's family, who were Orthodox Jews, changed their name from Weiss to White. She was raised as a Protestant and did not know of her Jewish heritage until her father's death in 1922. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey. She developed a fascination for technology from her father, who was an engineer and inventor in the printing business (he worked on improvements to the Braille press). Her mother described as a "resourceful homemaker," instilled in her daughter the desire to excel.
In 1921 Bourke-White enrolled in classes at Columbia University in New York to study art. Her mother bought Bourke-White her first camera that year. It was a 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ Ica Reflex. He father had been an avid amateur photographer but it wasn't until she was at Columbia that she developed a serious interest in photography. Her interest grew under the tutelage of Clarence Hudson White, who was a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement along with Alfred Stieglitz. Their goal was to bring the fledgling medium of photography to the level of an art form. It was from Hudson that Bourke-White learned the aesthetics of photography.
Her parents also encouraged her love for nature and reptiles, and in 1922 she began studying herpetology at Columbia University. In 1925 she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced a year later. After switching colleges several times (the University of Michigan, Purdue University in Indiana, and Case Western Reserve in Ohio), Bourke-White enrolled at Cornell University her senior year and graduated in 1927. After her divorce she adopted the hyphenated version of her name, Bourke-White, which now included her mother's maiden name. A year later, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she became an industrial photographer at the Otis Steel Company. She quickly achieved a reputation for capturing pictures of mundane objects like smokestacks, whose geometric shapes lent themselves well to abstract compositions. She was soon recruited by Henry Luce to cover assignments for the newly created Fortune Magazine in New York City.
In 1929 she began to work for Fortune, but also contracted work from corporate clients such as Chrysler, Goodyear and Eastern Air Lines. In 1930 she became the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union where she photographed their growing industrialization for Fortune. Out of this assignment she produced her first book, Eyes on Russia. Later she would return to the Soviet Union under very different circumstances with the advent of World War II.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life's first issue, dated November 23, 1936. The cover photograph became such an iconic image that it was featured as the 1930s representative for the United States Postal Service's Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps. Although Bourke-White titled the photo, “New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam,” it is actually a photo of the spillway located three miles east of the dam.
During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange, photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were married from 1939 to 1942, and together they collaborated on You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a book about conditions in the South during the Great Depression. They produced two other books together, North of Danube and Say, Is This the U.S.A. (1941). Their marriage ended while Bourke-White was working as a war correspondent in Italy. Long separations due to war-time conditions, coupled with career pressures, made it difficult for the marriage to last. However, the collaboration had served to change Bourke-White's focus from industry to people. Henceforth her pictures would prove to have a fresh and candid approach, an important pioneering element in the development of the photo essay.
Bourke-White was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II. In 1941 she traveled to the Soviet Union just as Germany broke its pact of non-aggression. She was the only foreign photographer in Moscow when German forces invaded. Taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy, she then captured the ensuing firestorms on camera.
As the war progressed she was attached to the U.S. Army Air Force in North Africa, then to the U.S. Army in Italy and later Germany. She repeatedly came under fire in Italy in areas of fierce fighting. Later she produced a book of pictures she took of the battle zone in Italy called, Purple Heart Valley. As the war spread to Germany, Bourke-White, always willing to be on the front line, followed the fighting.
In the spring of 1945 she traveled through a collapsing Germany with General George S. Patton. Some of her most notable pictures are of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp after it was liberated. She photographed corpses, ovens and survivors. Of her ability to capture this on film, she said, "I have to work with a veil over my mind. I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw prints of my own photographs." Her photos helped to convince the world of the brutal realities of the Nazi death camps. One of her most powerful photographs from that time is titled "The Living Dead of Buchenwald."
After the war she produced a book entitled Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, a project that helped her to digest the atrocities she had witnessed during and after the war.
In 1946 Life sent Bourke-White to India to cover the emergence of that country's independence from Great Britain. Her photo-essay, The Caste System, shows children working under dire conditions in factories, most vulnerable to its discriminatory practices. She also photographed the Great Migration of refugees forced to leave their homes after the partitioning of Pakistan had created new borders. Bourke-White photographed Mohandas K. Gandhi just hours before he was assassinated and said of that incident, "Nothing in all my life has affected me more deeply and the memory will never leave me." Her picture of Gandhi, clothed simply and observing a day of silence by his spinning wheel has become an iconic image.
The same year she photographed Pakistan's founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Bourke-White's work took her into the seat of some of the worst violence that this region of the world has ever witnessed. Riots in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) had left rotting corpses in the street. As a way to digest the horror she witnessed in India Bourke-White again produced a book, this one called, Halfway to Freedom. Biographers and art critics have said that some of her most beautiful and dramatic work is from that period.
In 1949 she went to South Africa to photograph the difficult working conditions of black miners in Johannesburg. Bourke-White herself became ill when descending into the mine and had to be brought back up. She also photographed the children of shantytowns and compiled a photo-essay called, South Africa and Its Problem. The picture of two black African gold miners on the cover, known only by their numbers (like prisoners they were not allowed to use their names) became one of Bourke-White's favorites.
In 1952 Bourke-White went to the Korea as a war correspondent to cover the fighting between the South Korean Nationalists and the North Korean Communists. It was there that she took a picture of Nim, Churl Jin, a South Korean defecting from the communist guerrillas he had once had allegiance to as a runaway teenager. His tearful reunion with his mother evoked an emotional response from Bourke-White, as well, and she considered this picture one of the most important of her career. It was while in Korea that Bourke-White began feeling the symptoms of her then undiagnosed illness.
"The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper (helicopter) crashed, was known to the Life staff as ‘Maggie the Indestructible.’" However, at the age of 50, Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and was forced to slow down considerably. She initially dealt with her symptoms through physical therapy. In 1959 and 1961 she had brain surgery that severely limited her ability to speak.
Confined to her home in Darien, Connecticut, where her living room was wallpapered in one large photograph of an evergreen forest that she had taken in Czechoslovakia, she worked on her autobiography, Portrait of Myself which was published in 1963.
Sean Callahan, who worked on a final book of photographs with her titled, Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer said in his article, “The Last Days of a Legend”:
Beginning in the late 1920s, Bourke-White's imagery—full of drama, romance, echoing pattern, and daring perspective—made her an innovative and acclaimed photographer. But that was not enough to make her a photojournalist. She also had the unerring instinct of a journalist ... She had, in addition to the mastery of the medium and the eye of an artist, the daring, cunning, and intuition to be where news would be happening. Once there, she could rise to the occasion. In this regard she is the spiritual mother to photojournalists like Harry Benson, James Nachtwey, and Susan Meisalas.
She died in Connecticut at 67 years old.
Her photographs are in the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as well as in the collection of the Library of Congress. In 1976 she was the first woman inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame.
In the 2006 re-edition of Khushwant Singh's 1956 novel about the Indian-Pakistan partition violence, Train to Pakistan, 66 of Bourke-White's photographs were included.
Bourke-White was portrayed by Farrah Fawcett in the television movie, Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White and by Candice Bergen in the 1982 film Gandhi.
All links retrieved August 14, 2018.
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