Gold Miners, Johannesburg, South Africa , 1950
Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971) was an American photographer and documentary photographer. She is best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan, the first American female war photojournalist, and to have her photograph on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine. She died of Parkinson’s disease about eighteen years after developing symptoms.
Margaret Bourke-White, born Margaret White in the Bronx, New York, was the daughter of Joseph White, a non-practicing Jew from Poland, and Minnie Bourke, who was of Irish Catholic descent. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey (in a neighborhood now part of Middlesex), and graduated from Plainfield High School in Union County. From her naturalist father, an engineer and inventor, she claimed to have learned perfectionism; from her “resourceful homemaker” mother, she claimed to have developed an unapologetic desire for self-improvement.” Her younger brother, Roger Bourke White, became a prominent Cleveland businessman and high-tech industry founder, and her older sister, Ruth White, became well known for her work at the American Bar Association in Chicago, Ill. Roger Bourke White described their parents as “Free thinkers who were intensely interested in advancing themselves and humanity through personal achievement,” attributing this quality in part to the success of their children. He was not surprised at his sister Margaret’s success, saying “[she] was not unfriendly or aloof”.
Margaret’s interest in photography began as a young woman’s hobby, supported by her father’s enthusiasm for cameras. Despite her interest, in 1922, she began studying herpetology at Columbia University, only to have her interest in photography strengthened after studying under Clarence White (no relation). She left after one semester, following the death of her father. She transferred colleges several times, attending the University of Michigan (where she became a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority), Purdue University in Indiana, and Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Bourke-White ultimately graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927, leaving behind a photographic study of the rural campus for the school’s newspaper, including photographs of her famed dormitory, Risley Hall. A year later, she moved from Ithaca, New York, to Cleveland, Ohio, where she started a commercial photography studio and began concentrating on architectural and industrial photography.
In 1924, during her studies, she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced two years later. Margaret White added her mother’s surname, “Bourke” to her name in 1927 and hyphenated it.
One of Bourke-White’s clients was Otis Steel Company. Her success was due to her skills with both people and her technique. Her experience at Otis is a good example. As she explains in Portrait of Myself, the Otis security people were reluctant to let her shoot for many reasons. Firstly, steel making was a defense industry, so they wanted to be sure national security was not endangered. Second, she was a woman, and in those days, people wondered if a woman and her delicate cameras could stand up to the intense heat, hazard, and generally dirty and gritty conditions inside a steel mill. When she finally got permission, technical problems began. Black-and-white film in that era was sensitive to blue light, not the reds and oranges of hot steel, so she could see the beauty, but the photographs were coming out all black. She solved this problem by bringing along a new style of magnesium flare, which produces white light, and having assistants hold them to light her scenes. Her abilities resulted in some of the best steel factory photographs of that era, which earned her national attention.
In 1929, Bourke-White accepted a job as associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine, a position she held until 1935. In 1930, she became the first Western photographer allowed to take photographs of Soviet industry. She was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936. She held the title of staff photographer until 1940, but returned from 1941 to 1942, and again in 1945, after which she stayed through her semi-retirement in 1957 (which ended her photography for the magazine) and her full retirement in 1969.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such a favorite that it was the 1930s’ representative in 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,” according to a United States Army Corps of Engineers web page.
During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange, photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. In the February 15, 1937 issue of Life magazine, her famous photograph of black flood victims standing in front of a sign which declared, “World’s Highest Standard of Living”, showing a white family, was published. The photograph later would become the basis for the artwork of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’.
Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were married from 1939 to their divorce in 1942, and collaborated on ‘You Have Seen Their Faces’ (1937), a book about conditions in the South during the Great Depression.
She also traveled to Europe to record how Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were faring under Nazism and how Russia was faring under Communism. While in Russia, she photographed a rare occurrence, Joseph Stalin with a smile, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt when visiting Georgia.
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 in Germany. She repeatedly came under fire in Italy in areas of fierce fighting.
In the spring of 1945, she traveled throughout a collapsing Germany with Gen. George S. Patton. She arrived at Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp, and later said, “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.” After the war, she produced a book entitled, ‘Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly’, a project that helped her come to grips with the brutality she had witnessed during and after the war.
In 1953, Bourke-White developed her first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She was forced to slow her career to fight encroaching paralysis. In 1959 and 1961, she underwent several operations to treat her condition, which effectively ended her tremors, but affected her speech.
In 1971 she died at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, aged 67, from Parkinson’s disease.
Bourke-White’s photographs are in the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in the collection of the Library of Congress.
Many of her manuscripts, memorabilia, photographs, and negatives are housed in Syracuse University’s Bird Library Special Collections section.