Bourke-White, Margaret (1904–1971)

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Bourke-White, Margaret (1904–1971)

Pioneer industrial photographer, photojournalist, war-photographer, and writer, who became an American celebrity in her own right. Born on June 14, 1904, at Harrison Avenue in the Bronx, New York; died from Parkinson's disease on August 27, 1971, at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut at the age of 67; daughter of Joseph and Minnie (Bourke) White; graduated from Cornell University, 1927; married Everett Chapman, in 1925; married Erskine Caldwell (a writer), in 1939; no children.

Established a studio in Cleveland, began industrial photography (1927); hired by Fortune magazine (1929); undertook first visit to Soviet Union (1930);had cover photograph on first issue of Life (1936); photographed the siege of Moscow (1941); torpedoed on troop ship in the Mediterranean (1942); photographed Battle of Monte Cassino (1944); was with troops liberating Buchenwald and other camps (1945); visited India, meetings with Gandhi (1946–48); photographed in Korean War, denied redbaiters' accusations (1952).

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the preeminent photographers of 20th-century America. Brave, resourceful, artful in unsnarling bureaucratic obstacles, she pioneered in several ways: she was the first photographer to capture many industrial operations on film, the first photographer featured by Fortune and Life magazines, the first to present "photo-essays," and one of the first to show the possibilities of aerial photography. Like many artists of the interwar years, she loved machinery, and one of her best-remembered styles is the romanticized dam, factory, and airplane.

Her mother Minnie White was Irish Catholic and her father Joseph, an engineer and inventor, was Jewish. But he had abandoned his family's religion, and Margaret saw little of his side of the family as she grew up. She kept her part-Jewish heritage a closely guarded secret throughout her life. The family were devotees of Ethical Culture, a secular substitute for religion created by Felix Adler in the 1870s, which stressed moral responsibility and self-control. Adler himself married the Whites in 1898, and Margaret was born in 1904, in the Bronx. The family were perfectionists who instilled in their son and two daughters a mixture of fastidiousness and ambition. Joseph White was also an amateur photographer, and from childhood Margaret helped him develop glass-plate negatives in a bathtub full of chemicals.

In 1922, she began to study with Clarence White, a member of the Photo-Secession group and a friend of Alfred Stieglitz. During vacations, she blended her growing interest in photography with her childhood interest in wildlife (she was thinking seriously about becoming a student of snakes—a herpetologist) by working at a summer camp as nature and photography teacher. There she began to make postcards and portraits and was soon running a small tidy business. After her father's death in 1922, a local philanthropist paid Bourke-White's fees to go to the University of Michigan where she showed an increasing skill in photography. Making photographs for the college newspaper helped pay her way through.

She fell in love with a fellow student, Everett Chapman, and married him at the end of her sophomore year. When Chapman graduated and took a job as an engineering professor at Purdue, she left Michigan to go with him but soon found the marriage running into trouble. Her husband would not face up to the demands of his possessive mother nor protect Margaret against her attacks. Chapman himself was moody, and Margaret despaired of their future together. Several times, she underwent a self-induced abortion, fearing that children born to them were destined for an unhappy life; after two years, she left him altogether. She never spoke of him again and kept the marriage as much a secret as she could throughout her life, mentioning it in print for the first time only in her 1963 autobiography.

Bourke-White now went to Cornell University (her sixth college) and graduated. She showed her huge portfolio of photographs to a New York architect who assured her that she had the skill to become a professional; with this encouragement, she set up a studio in Cleveland in 1927. Most of her early work consisted of photographing the houses of wealthy Clevelanders, for the owners or the architects. After a shaky start as a businesswoman, she soon learned her way around, writing in her diary: "[T]he only way to make ninety percent of my wealthy clients appreciate the work is to charge simply unheard of prices." Unlike most women photographers of her era, she was attracted to heavy industry and began to make her reputation photographing blast furnaces for the annual reports of the Otis Steel Corporation. Her father had introduced her to industrial machinery. "I always see machinery through my fathers eyes," wrote Bourke-White. "And so I worship factories." Her work in the Otis factory had to overcome great technical difficulties—the low light, the searing heat and brilliance of molten metal being poured, and the difficulty of access. After months of tireless experimentation and by seizing on every new technical innovation in the fast-developing world of photography, she was finally able to make a high-quality series of prints which so impressed the owner of Otis that he gave her $100 per picture.

Her greatest break came when Henry Luce, editor of Time, hired her to work for his new magazine Fortune in 1929. Though she was Fortune's first staff photographer, she initially agreed to work only half time, for a salary of $1,000 per month, to preserve her independence. Her photographs dominated the inaugural issue of Fortune and appeared in almost every issue of the

magazine in its early years. While most photographs used in the magazine were anonymous, Bourke-White's name appeared prominently in the credits. To facilitate her work for Luce, she moved to New York in 1930 and rented a studio in the Chrysler Building. One of the best-known photographs of her was taken by her gifted dark-room technician, Oscar Graubner, with whom she had a long and profitable working relationship. It shows Bourke-White perched on one of the building's stainless steel eagle-shaped gargoyles, 77 stories above Manhattan.

Tolstoy and Gandhi may damn the machine as a devourer of spiritual virtues, as a sort of modern Antichrist, laying waste to the soul of man. But to Miss Bourke-White the machine is a noble and wondrous creation, an object of beauty and grandeur. … To Miss Bourke-White the machine is first and foremost an artistic creation.

—Maurice Hindus

Many of her pictures from the 1920s and 1930s were in a style which photography historian James Guimond terms "sooty romanticism," in which the power and magnitude of factories, refineries, and railroad yards were given heroic treatment. Machinery with its sharp angles and clean surfaces also gave photographers the chance to create an abstract effect. This was the favored style of Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Weston in much of their industrial photography, a style which Bourke-White emulated. Her photograph of a concrete dam, on the cover of the first edition of Life magazine (1936), is of this type, with its strong shapes overpowering the tiny human figures at the base of the structure. Guimond summarized: "Bourke-White's pictures follow all the conventions of industrial public relations photography—intricate patterns, large machines running themselves, insignificant workers—but she also used a variety of modernist techniques such as exotic camera angles, high contrast lighting, and rhythmic, abstract patterns to make these subject look more grandiose and melodramatic."

Fortune sent her on assignment to Germany in 1930. While there, she persuaded the Soviet Embassy to give her a passport into Russia, at a time when they were very difficult to get. Impressed by her photographs, they admitted her, and she toured the Soviet Union at the height of its first five-year plan, when factories, blast-furnaces and dams were being built from scratch all over the country. She made her excursion the basis of a book, Eyes on Russia (1931), for which she provided both text and pictures. Unconcerned with politics, she told colorful anecdotes about the chaotic inefficiency, the lack of shoes, and the optimistic but uneducated people she met. As with her American pictures, industry on a grand scale dominated the Russian photographs—people were added for scale and effect. State bureaucrats in the Soviet government admired them—they fell in with the Soviets' self-conception as heroic modernizers.

In a subsequent trip to Germany and Russia, Bourke-White gradually became more aware of the political implications of her photographic subjects, and like many artists in the 1920s and 1930s moved from a primarily aesthetic to a more politically engaged outlook. She made speeches for left-wing artists' causes and decorated the Soviet consulate in Washington, D.C., but was too closely tied to advertising and business to think about becoming a Communist. Eventually her developing social conscience and her annoyance with the limitations of commercial work made her resolve to give up advertising work altogether, and the instant success of Life, on which she played as major a role as she had with Fortune, made it possible for her to live up to this resolution. In the early issues of Life, she created a new genre which editor-in-chief Henry Luce named the "photo-essay" and which became a staple of picture journalism for the next several decades.

New schemes in the 1930s included her introduction to aerial photography, which she developed on a TWA advertising project but then turned to good effect on a study of the dust bowl, and mural-sized photographs to decorate corporate headquarters. Throughout these years, she was making a large income but spending extravagantly (she had expensive tastes in clothes and loved to make a splash for her growing circle of admirers). As the Great Depression ground on, she was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1936, Bourke-White toured the south with Erskine Caldwell, a Southern novelist famous for Tobacco Road (1932), which had become a stage success on Broadway. Their plan was to write a report on the suffering of Southern sharecroppers. After an uneasy beginning to their tour, they became lovers, and then worked well together, he talking with the sharecroppers and she photographing scenes of rural poverty. Similar scenes and people were also the subject of Dorothea Lange , Arthur Rothstein, and other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers.

But, except for Lange, the mood of Bourke-White's pictures was different from theirs. She emphasized the individuals' faces rather than the desolate landscape they farmed, and was on the lookout for extremes of poverty and deformity rather than representative men and women. She and Caldwell also made up the captions to the pictures rather than quoting the subjects' own words, and did it in a style which seems patronizing and condescending by modern-day standards. Their method made for a highly successful book, however, and when it appeared as You Have Seen Their Faces, it sold tens of thousands of copies and completely overshadowed the slightly later James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), even though the latter is generally regarded as much the better book.

Bourke-White and Caldwell next traveled to Czechoslovakia, in 1938, in time to witness the Austrian anschluss, Hitler's takeover, and the mobilization of German troops at the border of the Czech Sudetenland. They collaborated on another book North of the Danube (1939) and then a more general study of the American scene, Say, Is This the USA? (1941). After a stormy romance, they were married in 1939 though each of them was temperamental and sometimes overbearing, and the marriage broke up in 1941. For awhile, Bourke-White left Life and moved to a daily picture newspaper, PM, but her laborious, precise technique was unsuited to the pressure of the everyday deadlines; after six months she was back with Life again.

The Second World War presented Bourke-White with unequalled opportunities, and she seized them eagerly, setting off again for the Soviet Union and persuading the authorities there to relax their prohibition on photographers. She was in Moscow for the first air raids in the fall of 1941, and, rather than descend to the air-raid shelters, she climbed onto her hotel roof to photograph the bombs and the anti-aircraft fire. On this expedition, she was carrying 800 lbs. of equipment and never got it lower than 250 lbs. on later wartime trips even by excluding hundreds of items. She continued to use large format cameras throughout the 1930s, rather than moving over to light-weight, small-format cameras which were then coming into vogue, and still favored elaborate artificial lighting, tripods, and careful contrivance of every picture. In addition, she had a reputation for exposing hundreds of negatives for every one picture finally printed—a cause of scorn among other Life photographers, with whom she was not popular.

Many of Bourke-White's large-format cameras were lost in 1942 when she was aboard a troopship torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in the Mediterranean. She was able to escape and spent a night on an open boat before being picked up and taken ashore. Even on the later wartime trips, her personal luggage alone weighed 55 pounds. In Italy during the Monte Cassino campaign of 1943–44, her gear included seven cameras, thirty lenses, and an immense assortment of flash equipment and spare parts. Of all the army's accredited photographers, she was the most burdened and needed an aide to move from place to place. Nevertheless, the power and skill of her wartime work made the army and the media confident that they had been justified in bending the rules to admit her.

Some of her most haunting and memorable pictures were taken at Buchenwald concentration camp, where she arrived within a day of the liberation in 1945, showing thousands of emaciated corpses, and the listless, disoriented survivors staring blankly through the barbed wire. Bourke-White was repeatedly in the right place at the right time for "scoops," which she managed by tireless politicking with the army command, tactical use of tears, and constant trading on her already high reputation.

She also put her prior experience of aerial photography to good use during the war: she flew several hazardous missions, including a bombing run over German-occupied Tunis in a B-17 Flying Fortress, and dozens of hops in artillery spotter planes. Her aerial photographs of devastated German cities were used by the Strategic Bombing Survey in its effort to determine how effective the bomber campaigns had been. She would carry on her aerial photography work in the Korean War and would be one of the first photographers to appreciate the possibilities of helicopters as stationary flying platforms. A famous close up of the Statue of Liberty's face and crown with each tourist's face visible, taken in the mid-'50s, is one of her best-known helicopter photographs.

By war's end, Bourke-White was well on the way to being a national institution and was featured in dozens of newspaper and magazine stories in her own right. When she went to India to meet Gandhi and to photograph the traumatic period of British imperial withdrawal and the mass migrations of Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan (1946–48), she was herself one of the celebrities in the story. Again she arrived at the most dynamic moments. Gandhi was cold to her at first, but later they became friendly and had a long interview together early in the day on which he was assassinated. Having already seen horrific scenes in the war, she was hardened to the sight of Indian massacres in the period of transition, and another famous sequence, featured in Life, showed the bloated corpses of Indians killed in sectarian riots being eaten by vultures. Her visits to India culminated in another book, Half Way to Freedom, which showed greater political sophistication than her earlier books.

In 1951, Bourke-White, like many artists of her era, suddenly faced the accusation of being a Communist sympathizer. The charge was made by columnist Westbrook Pegler, an ardent Mc-Carthyite, and prompted Bourke-White to issue vigorous denials and to go on a speaking tour to affirm her anti-Communism and her faith in democracy. She was vulnerable to the accusation because of her many visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s and the sympathetic tone of her reporting there—also because of her membership in several Communist "front" organizations. She now asked Life to send her to the Korean War, as a way of consolidating her anti-Communist credentials, and there she covered the irregular, guerrilla war going on behind the lines of the main armies.

When she returned, having made another series of memorable pictures for Life, she began to discover that movement of her left arm and leg were becoming difficult. After trying to work around this disability for a while, she consulted a doctor who recognized the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The illness gradually began to affect her more and more seriously. Beyond 1956, Bourke-White was unable to continue her photography work. Volunteering for a surgical method which was then in its early experimental stages, she gained some remission from the symptoms and was well enough to write her autobiography, which was published in 1963. But Parkinsonism could not be halted and progressively the paralysis worsened. Bourke-White lived on until 1971, struggling bravely to overcome the increasing limitations on her mobility, and died only after a serious fall had immobilized her. Margaret Bourke-White's reputation and her influence on photography were immense. Through her entire life, she had shown a singlemindedness and self-reliance that few, if any, of her contemporaries could equal.


Bourke-White, Margaret. Portrait of Myself. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

——. Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

——. Eyes on Russia. With a preface by Maurice Hindus. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1931.

Callahan, Sean and Theodore Brown. The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. NY: Graphic Society Press, 1972.

Goldberg, Vicki. Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.

Guimond, James. American Photography and the American Dream. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Moeller, Susan. Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat. NY: Basic Books, 1989.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia