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Bourke-White, Margaret


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.)]

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