American photographer Margaret Bourke-White was a leader in the new field of photo-journalism. As a staff photographer for Fortune and Life magazines, she covered the major political and social issues of the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in New York City on June 14, 1904, Margaret Bourke-White was the daughter of Joseph and Minnie White. (She added "Bourke," her mother's name, after her first marriage ended.) Raised in a strict household, Bourke-White attended local public schools in Bound Brook, New Jersey, after her family moved there. In high school Bourke-White served as the yearbook editor and showed promise in her writing talents.
Bourke-White attended several different universities during her moves back and forth from the Midwest and the East. She first revealed her talent for photography while a student at Cornell University in upstate New York, where she also completed her bachelor's degree in 1927. Using a secondhand Ica Reflex camera with a broken lens, she sold pictures of the scenic campus to other students. After graduation Bourke-White opened a studio in Cleveland, Ohio, where she found the industrial landscape "a photographic paradise." Initially specializing in architectural photography, her prints of the Otis Steel factory came to the attention of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, who was planning a new publication devoted to the glamour of business.
Building a career
In the spring of 1929 Bourke-White accepted Luce's offer to become the first staff photographer for Fortune magazine, which made its debut in February 1930. Her subjects included the Swift meatpacking company, shoemaking, watches, glass, paper mills, orchids, and banks. Excited by the drama of the machine, she made several trips to the Soviet Union (the former country made up of Russia and several smaller nations) and was the first photographer to seriously document its rapid industrial development. She published her work in the book Eyes on Russia (1931).
Bourke-White, working out of a New York City studio in the new Chrysler Building, also handled profitable advertising accounts. In 1934, in the midst of the Depression (a decade-long period of severe economic hardship in the 1930s), she earned over $35,000. But a Fortune assignment to cover the drought (a severe shortage of water) in the Midwest states opened her eyes to human suffering and steered her away from advertising work. She began to view photography less as a purely artistic medium and more as a powerful tool for informing the public. In 1936 she worked with Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987), the author of Tobacco Road, on a photo-essay revealing social conditions in the South. The results of their efforts became her best-known book, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937).
In the fall of 1936 Bourke-White joined the staff of Life magazine, which popularized the photo-essay. Her picture of the Fort Peck dam in Montana adorned the cover of Life magazine's first issue, November 11, 1936. On one of her first assignments she flew to the Arctic circle. While covering the Louisville flood in 1937 she composed her most famous single photograph: a contrast between a line of African Americans waiting for emergency relief and a billboard with a picture of an untroubled white family in a car and a caption celebrating the American way of life.
During World War II (1939-45; a war in which the Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States—fought against the Axis—Germany, Italy, and Japan), Bourke-White served as a war correspondent affiliated with both Life and the U.S. Air Force. She survived a torpedo attack on a ship she was taking to North Africa and accompanied the bombing mission that destroyed the German airfield of El Aouina near Tunis. She later covered the Italian campaign (recorded in the book They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" ) and was with General George Patton (1885–1945) in the spring of 1945 when his troops opened the gates at Buchenwald, Germany, a concentration camp (a camp for prisoners of war). Her photos revealed the horrors to the world.
In December of 1949 she went to South Africa for five months where she recorded the cruelty of apartheid, the unfair social and political treatment of black people in South Africa. In 1952 she went to Korea, where her pictures focused on family sorrows arising from war.
Shortly after her return from Korea she noticed signs of Parkinson's disease, the nerve disorder which she battled for the remainder of her life. Her autobiography (the story of a person's own life), Portrait of Myself, was started in 1955 and completed in 1963. On August 27, 1971, Margaret Bourke-White died at her home in Darien, Connecticut. She left behind a legacy as a determined woman, an innovative visual artist, and a compassionate human observer.
For More Information
Rubin, Susan Goldman. Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life. New York: Abrams, 1999.
Siegel, Beatrice. An Eye on the World: Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer. New York: F. Warne, 1980.
Silverman, Jonathon. For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was a leader in the new field of photo-journalism. As a staff photographer for FORTUNE and LIFE magazines, she covered the major political and social issues of the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in New York City on June 14, 1904, Margaret Bourke-White was the daughter of Joseph and Minnie White. (She added "Bourke, " her mother's name, after her first marriage ended). One of the original staff photographers for LIFE magazine, she was a pioneer in the field of photo-journalism. She photographed the leading political figures of her time: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mahatma Gandhi. She also called attention to the suffering of unknown people, from the poor sharecroppers in America to the oppressed Black coalminers in South Africa. An adventuresome lady who loved to fly, Bourke-White was the first accredited woman war correspondent during World War II and the first woman to accompany a bombing mission.
Bourke-White first revealed her talent for photography while a student at Cornell University. Using a secondhand Ica Reflex camera with a broken lens, she sold pictures of the scenic campus to other students. After graduation she opened a studio in Cleveland, where she found the industrial landscape "a photographic paradise." Initially specializing in architectural photography, her prints of the Otis Steel factory came to the attention of TIME magazine publisher Henry Luce, who was planning a new publication devoted to the glamour of business.
In the spring of 1929 Bourke-White accepted Luce's offer to become the first staff photographer for FORTUNE magazine, which made its debut in February 1930. Her subjects included the Swift meatpacking company, shoemaking, watches, glass, papermills, orchids, and banks. Excited by the drama of the machine, she made several trips to the Soviet Union and was the first photographer to seriously document its rapid industrial development. She published her work in the book Eyes on Russia (1931).
Bourke-White, working out of a New York City studio in the new Chrysler Building, also handled lucrative advertising accounts. In 1934, in the midst of the Depression, she earned over $35, 000. But a FORTUNE assignment to cover the drought in the Plains states opened her eyes to human suffering and steered her away from advertising work. She began to view photography less as a purely artistic medium and increasingly as a powerful tool for informing the public. In 1936 she collaborated with Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, on a photo-essay revealing social conditions in the South. The results of their efforts became her best-known book, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937).
In the fall of 1936 Bourke-White joined the staff of LIFE magazine, which popularized the photo-essay. Her picture of the Fort Peck dam in Montana adorned the cover of LIFE's first issue, November 11, 1936. On one of her first assignments she flew to the Arctic circle. While covering the Louisville flood in 1937 she composed her most famous single photograph, contrasting a line of Black people waiting for emergency relief with an untroubled white family in its car pictured on a billboard with a caption celebrating the American way of life.
In early 1940 Bourke-White worked briefly for the new pictorial newspaper PM, but by October she returned to LIFE as a free lance photographer. With Erskine Caldwell (to whom she was married from 1939 to 1942) she travelled across the United States and produced the book Say Is This the U.S.A.? In the spring of 1941 they were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded Russia.
During World War II Bourke-White served as an accredited war correspondent affiliated with both LIFE and the Air Force. She survived a torpedo attack on a ship she was taking to North Africa and accompanied the bombing mission which destroyed the German airfield of El Aouina near Tunis. She later covered the Italian campaign (recorded in the book They Called It "Purple Heart Valley") and was with General George Patton in spring 1945 when his troops opened the gates of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Her photos revealed the horrors to the world.
In 1946 LIFE sent Bourke-White to India to cover the story of its independence. Before she was allowed to meet Mahatma Gandhi she was required to learn how to use the spinning wheel. Frustrated at the moment because of a deadline, she later reflected, "Nonviolence was Gandhi's creed, and the spinning wheel was the perfect weapon."
On a second trip to India to witness the creation of Pakistan, Bourke-White was the last journalist to see Gandhi, only a couple of hours before his assassination.
In December of 1949 she went to South Africa for five months where she recorded the cruelty of apartheid. In 1952 she went to Korea, where her pictures focused on family sorrows arising from the war. Shortly after her return from Korea she first noticed signs of Parkinson's disease, the nerve disorder which she battled for the remaining years of her life. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, was started in 1955 and completed in 1963. On August 27, 1971, Margaret Bourke-White died at her home in Darien, Connecticut. She left behind a legacy as a determined woman, an innovative visual artist, and a compassionate human observer.
Margaret Bourke-White wrote or co-authored 11 books. Her most famous is You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with Erskine Caldwell, on social conditions in the South during the Depression. Also see her informative autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). There are two good collections of her photographs which also contain biographical information, For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White by Jonathon Silverman (1983) and The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, edited by Sean Callahan (1972). □
Everett Chapman, 1924; Erskine Caldwell, 1939
Margaret Bourke-White attended several universities before receiving her degree in biology from Cornell in 1927. The death of her father during her senior year forced her to earn her own way, so she did photo work for the Cornell Alumni News. After graduation she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and began a professional career, not in biology, but in photography. She began to make a name for herself as an industrial photographer at a time when the U.S. was falling in love with the machine. She helped develop the techniques needed for dark/high intensity light situations such as those found in foundaries. In the spring of 1929 Henry Luce asked Bourke-White to work as an associate editor for the yet-unborn Fortune magazine. The magazine would serve as an ideal vehicle for Bourke-White's adulation of machines and factories.
In the early 1930s Bourke-White executed photo murals in RKO Radio City, took her first trip to Russia, and put together her first book, Eyes on Russia (1931). A 1934 Fortune assignment to photograph the effects of the Depression on Midwestern farmers led to Bourke-White's awareness that people are more than figures useful for establishing relative size in photos. Her newfound social compassion led to a collaboration with Erskine Caldwell in documenting the plight of southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). This book represented a new form of journalism that integrated picture and word as well as being one of the earliest depictions of the Depression's effects on human existence.
In 1936 Bourke-White gave up her associate editorship at Fortune to become one of the four original photographers for the new Luce photographic magazine called Life. From the 1930s on, Bourke-White's work was constantly before the public: she displayed her work in the 1930 exhibit "Men and Machine," shot the first cover of Life, published photo-essays in dozens of magazines, filmed two moving pictures on Russia, and wrote several books. At the outbreak of World War II, Bourke-White, accredited as an official Air Force photographer, did work for the Air Force and Life simultaneously. She was in Russia when the Germans invaded, taking incredible risks to shoot pictures, develop them, and get them to America. She was in a ship torpedoed on the way to Africa, flew aerial missions, and was with General George Patton when he opened Buchenwald. Her reputation was great, and Bourke-White, appreciative of the value of being slightly notorious, allowed myths about herself to spread.
By 1957 after 21 years at Life, Bourke-White was forced to resign because of the crippling effects of Parkinson's disease. Unable to use her camera, she wrote Portrait of Myself (1963), an autobiography that records her struggle against the disease. She was able to hold the disease at bay temporarily with constant exercising, but an accident that forced her into bed finally allowed the disease to overcome her indomitable spirit.
While no theoretician, Bourke-White's photo-essays exhibit clarity, warmth, and crispness. She believed fact and beauty were the keystones for good pictures, especially when the images captured the similarities between people. While initially almost exclusively a photographer, Bourke-White wrote the text of her later books in the same crisp, clear, warm style her pictures illustrate.
The Story of Steel (with D. Kulas, 1928). U.S.S.R. Photographs (1934). Freighters of Fortune (with N. Beasley, 1930). The Book of Sunnybank (with A. P. Terhune, 1934). The Terhune Omnibus (ed. M. J. Herzberg, 1937). North of the Danube (with E. Caldwell, 1939). Say, is This the U.S.A.? (with E. Caldwell, 1941). Shooting the Russian War (1942). They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" (1944). "Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly" (1946). Halfway to Freedom (1949). A Report of the American Jesuits (with J. LaFarge, 1956). The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White (1973). Margaret Bourke-White: The Cleveland Years, 1927-1930 (1976). The Taste of War (1985). Margaret Bourke-White, 1904-1971: Photographs (1988). Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (video, 1989). Power and Paper: Margaret Bourke-White, Modernity, and the Documentary Mode (1998). Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer (1998).
Ashby, R. and D. G. Ohrn, Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (1995). Brown, T. M., Margaret Bourke-White: Photo-Journalist (1972). Callahan, S., ed., The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White (1972). Daffron, C., Margaret Bourke-White (1988). Felder, D. G., The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time (1996). Flavell, M. K., You Have Seen Their Faces: Gisele Freund, Walter Benjamin and Margaret Bourke-White as Headhunters of the Thirties (1994). Goldberg, V., Bourke-White (1988). Hood, R. E., "The Compleat Bourke-White" in 12 at War (1967). Howard, W. L., Dear Kit, Dear Skinny: The Letters of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White (1988). Kirkland, W. M. and F. Kirkland, "Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer of Steel," in Girls Who Became Artists (1934). McEuen, M. A., Changing Eyes: American Culture and the Photographic Image, 1918-1941 (dissertation, 1991). Pollack, P., "Margaret Bourke-White: Roving Recorder" in The Picture History of Photography (1969). Raymond, M. T., "Girl with a Camera," in Topflight Famous American Women (1946). Rolka, G. M., 100 Women Who Shaped World History (1994). Rubin, S.G., Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life (1999). Silverman, J., For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White (1983). Tucker, A., ed., The Woman's Eye (1973).
The Encyclopedia of Photography (1963).
Life (10 Sept. 1971). NYT (26 Oct. 1930, 28 Aug. 1971, 10 Jan. 1971, 5 Sept. 1971, 12 Sept. 1971).
—MIRIAM Z. LANGSAM
BOURKE-WHITE, MARGARET (Peg ; 1904–1971), U.S. photojournalist. Bourke-White was the daughter of Minnie Bourke, who was Irish-English and a Catholic, and Joseph White, formerly Weiss, from an Orthodox Polish family. Born in the Bronx, the pioneering photographer, whose father was an inventor of printing presses, grew up in Bound Brook, n.j. In 1922, while studying herpetology at Columbia University, she developed an interest in photography after studying under Clarence White, a master of impressionistic soft-focus photography. In 1925, she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced a year later. After switching colleges several times, she graduated from Cornell in 1927 and a year later moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she opened a studio and specialized in architectural photography. She soon became an industrial photographer at the Otis Steel Company, where she honed her love of hard-edged industry and architecture.
Bourke-White's rise to fame in a man's world was partly the work of Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine, who recruited her to be his photographer for the new Fortune magazine. "She could make anything beautiful," a writer in the New York Times said, "piles of ground-up pig parts, rows of hanging cow carcasses, dreary assembly lines." Word got around and for years it was said that no mogul could resist her pictorial or feminine charms. She took countless pictures in factories and warehouses. By arranging industrial products and materials and lighting them dramatically, she made them dance and sing, a reviewer wrote. "Her plow blades look like legs of Rockettes."
She was a climber in more ways than one. As a child, she liked to walk along the tops of fences. When she grew up, she requested the top floors of hotels. Her office in the Chrysler Building was eye-level with the gargoyles. In 1930 Bourke-White made a trip to Germany, and while there petitioned her way into the Soviet Union to take pictures. She made the Soviet construction projects look heroic. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, her corporate commissions began to dry up. She couldn't afford her Art Deco office in the Chrysler Building. Fortune sent her to cover the drought in the Midwest. Her pictures seemed to focus on the abstract pattern, the play of light and dark, and the rhythm of repetition. Her photographs of poverty in the South, published in You Have Seen Their Faces, a 1937 book written with the novelist Erskine Caldwell, who became her second husband, was a public success. But the book was criticized for left-wing bias and upset whites in the Deep South with its passionate attack on racism. Carl Mydans of Life later said: "Margaret Bourke-White's social awareness was clear and obvious. All the editors at the magazine were aware of her commitment to social causes." Luce had made her one of the original photographers for the new Life magazine in 1936, along with Alfred *Eisenstaedt, and it was her photograph of three marching concrete pillars at the Fort Peck Dam that appeared on the inaugural cover.
She and Caldwell were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German army invaded in 1941. She photographed the German bombing raids before returning to the United States, where she and Caldwell produced another attack on social inequality, Say, Is This the U.S.A.? (1942). During the World War ii, she served as a war correspondent, working both for Life and for the U.S. Air Force. She survived a torpedo attack while on a ship to North Africa, photographed the bombing of Tunis and was with the United States troops and photographed the liberation of the Buchenwald death camp. These photographs, along with Edward R. Murrow's reporting, achieved iconographic status. After the war she continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting *Gandhi's nonviolent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa.
An incredibly hard worker with legendary stamina and perseverance, she had a reputation of being persuasive, charming, persistent, and manipulative. She constantly alienated women while trying to please men. She thrived on adventure and crisis and put her photographic ambitions ahead of virtually everything. She had just said goodbye to Gandhi and was leaving India when she got word that he had been assassinated. She rushed to his house where his family and friends – who were her friends, too – welcomed her in their sorrow. There were to be no pictures, but Bourke-White smuggled in a camera and took a shot, with a flashbulb, before she was thrown out.
In 1952 she went to the Far East to cover Japan and the Korean War. There she took what she considered her best photograph, a meeting between a returning soldier and his mother who thought he had been killed several months earlier. She felt the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease in 1953 but stubbornly refused to give in to her disabilities and worked for Life until 1957. She spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, which was published in 1963.
Bourke-White's father kept his Jewishness hidden from her, and she only learned about it at his death when she was 18. Her biographer, Vicki Goldberg, in 1986, says her demanding mother was an antisemite and only three or four friends knew of Bourke-White's religious background.
[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]
Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904–August 27, 1971) was born in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Joseph White and Minnie Bourke, and grew up in New Jersey. She acquired a fascination for photography from her father and from a teacher, Clarence H. White, a member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession movement. After briefly attending two colleges, and getting married and divorced, she enrolled in Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and supported herself by selling photographs of the campus to students and alumni. She graduated in 1927 with a degree in biology. Bourke-White then opened a photography studio in Cleveland, where her dramatic industrial photographs of foundries gained the attention of Henry Luce in 1929. Luce brought her to New York to become a photographer for his new magazine, Fortune. Bourke-White's assignment to take pictures of industrialization in the Soviet Union in 1930 led to her first book, Eyes on Russia (1931). After completing celebrated picture essays on the meatpacking plants of Chicago, glass blowing in upstate New York, and Indiana stone quarries, Bourke-White's emphasis changed from industry to the human condition while she photographed the Dust Bowl conditions of the Plains states in 1934. She collaborated with writer Erskine Caldwell, whom she would later marry and divorce, on a photo-documentary of the life of poor southern sharecroppers, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). In 1936 she signed on as one of four photographers for Luce's new pictorial magazine, Life. Her photographs of the construction of Fort Peck Dam in Montana were chosen for the first cover illustration and lead article of Luce's new venture.
As a Life correspondent during World War II, she was the only foreign photojournalist to be in the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded, the only woman to be accredited by the U. S. armed forces as a war photographer, the first female to accompany and record an Army Air Force bombing mission, and the first to document the horrors of the German concentration camp at Buchenwald. After the war, she covered the Korean War, the miners of South Africa, and the independence of, and strife between, India and Pakistan. Discovering that she had Parkinson's disease in 1956, Bourke-White gradually turned from photography to writing, producing an autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). She died in 1971 at the age of sixty-seven. A pioneer in photojournalism who thrived on adventure and craved a crisis, tirelessly and ruthlessly doing whatever it took to get the photograph she wanted, Bourke-White was widely hailed as a woman doing a man's job in a man's world.
Brown, Theodore M. Margaret Bourke-White: Photojournalist. 1972.
Callahan, Sean, ed. The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. 1972.
Goldberg, Vicki. Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography. 1986.
Silverman, Jonathan. For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White. 1983.