Monday 12 July 2010

Profile: Margaret Bourke-White

Diversion Tunnels, Fort Peck Dam 1936 - Image by Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White's story reads like something out of Hermann Wouk's The Winds of War novel. As a documentary photographer, she travelled extensively during World war II, met many of the leading figures of the era and was the only western photographer to work (briefly) in the Soviet Union during the start of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. She was a household name and regarded as one of the best photographers of her generation.

Margaret Bourke-White was born as Margaret White in 1904 in the Bronx, New York. Her father was a printer and inventor who had a love of machinery and from whom she claimed to learned perfectionism from. Her mother was a homemaker whose resourcefulness gave Margaret White a desire to constantly improve as well as the additional Bourke name. Margaret Bourke-White's brother describes their parents as 'free thinkers who were intensely interested in advancing themselves and humanity through personal achievement'.  Looking back at Bourke-White's life it seems obvious that she inherited much of  her parents hard working ethos. Unlike many photographers of her generation, Bourke-White had a university background (pursuing a degree in Herpetology - the study of reptiles) finally graduating from Cornell University NY with her B.A. in 1927. During this period, Margaret Bourke-White was taking photographs as a hobby, but her passion for photography eventually led to her going professional. She began working as a commercial, architectural and industrial photographer in Cleveland, Ohio.

In the late 1920's she undertook a commissioned to photograph the Otis Steel Company. The assignment had its problems with access and attitudes towards women photographers just being two of them to deal with. After some initial technical difficulties due to the films colour sensitivity and lighting within the steel plant, Margaret Bourke-White managed to produce some of best steel factory pictures of that era by using magnesium flares as a light source. Her ability to work of with people (her second husband, Erskine Caldwell, described her as "very adept at being able to direct people. She was almost like a motion picture director. Very astute in that respect") and a great technical know how paid off and gained her national attention. Much of her technical expertise was gained from her father's interest in cameras and the technical side of photography. This knowledge would later become incredibly useful for Margaret Bourke-White as she worked in some of the most adverse conditions imaginable. One impressive photograph has her using her camera atop of the Chrysler building in New York.

In 1929, Margaret Bourke-White made the move from industrial to documentary photographer when she was recruited by Editor and Publisher Henry Luce as a staff photographer for Fortune Magazine which chronicled the world of U.S. business and economy. The keen editor and publisher had seen the photographer's work and realised that Fortune magazine needed those types of quality images. The following year, Margaret Bourke-White became the first western photographer to be allowed into the Soviet Union to photograph Soviet industry. When Henry Luce started LIFE magazine in late 1936, the first front cover featured a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. The photographer's fame had been building before LIFE, but the new magazine added further to her appeal. She even appeared in photo stories in the magazine itself documenting how she took the photographs for a magazine story. Before long Margaret Bourke-White was a household name that endorsed products as diverse as coffee, phonograph records and wine. 

It is as a LIFE photographer that the photographer is best remembered, but Margaret Bourke-White only served as a LIFE staff photographer until 1940 when see left to become chief photographer for another magazine. During the war years, however, she would return to LIFE magazine, now and again, until a permanent return occurred in 1945. From that point on until her semi retirement in 1957, LIFE magazine would be her work and her family. In the late 1940's Margaret Bourke-White became a target for Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The FBI had been making a file on the photographer since the mid 1930's due to her 'political activities' (Bourke-White had an interest in documenting racial inequality). She only managed to avoid a cross examination by the House of Un-American Activities committee by writing a statement confirming her believe in democracy.

In 1953, Margaret Bourke-White developed the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease which eventually stopped her from working as a photographer. In semi retirement, she decided to write an autobiography of her adventures called 'Portrait of Myself'  which took eight years to complete and was finally published in 1963. After a number of operations and procedures to halt the progress of the disease, this remarkable photographer, who had travelled the world, photographed Stalin smiling and taken one last image of Gandhi shortly before he was assassinated, died at the age of 67 on August 27, 1971. Sixteen months later, on the 29th December 1972, LIFE magazine was published for the final time. It marked the end of a remarkable era for photojournalism.

All Images by Margaret Bourke-White

Top Left: Margaret Bourke-White
Top Right: Margaret Bourke-White on the Chrysler Building, New York 1934 - photo by Oscar Graubner
Middle Left: Bread Line during the Louisville flood, Kentucky 1937
Middle Right: Prisoners at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1945
Bottom Left: Nuremberg 1945


Margaret Bourke-White at Masters of Photography
Margaret Bourke-White/ LIFE image archive


Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life

Margaret Bourke-White: The Early Work, 1922-1930 (Pocket Paragon Series)

Purple Heart Valley: A Combat Chronicle of the War in Italy


Unknown said...

Hi Richard, firstly thanks for visiting my blog cheers for info. Secondly great post what a great life this lady had.
I will certainly find out a bit more about her and look for her images. Keep in touch Kev

kat evans said...

Rich, thanks for putting up this great profile! I knew I had to take a closer look at this remarkable woman when I saw the image of her onto of the Chrysler building!

Anonymous said...

Rich, thanks for posting this. She was a remarkable woman. I wish more people would take the time to get to know the people of the past that made things possible for others in the future.

ben said...

It has been some time since I visited website with such high quality information about regarding . Thank you so much for providing such helpful information