Ambitious, glamorous, brave, and entrepreneurial, early 20th-century American photographer, Margaret Bourke-White was a woman ahead of her time. Known for accomplishing things long before they became the norm, her extensive contributions to industrial photography and international photojournalism were iconic in their influence upon American society. In her autobiography, “Portrait of Myself”, she chronicles her journey to becoming a pioneering female photographer and photojournalist of such high caliber, writing about everything from significant influences such as family and education, to her most historic accomplishments and death defying experiences as a war correspondent. Her iconic photography helped to shape public perception in America regarding global affairs, changing the very manner in which history is remembered today. Her great success in the industry paved the way for women around the world to view their careers as more than a predetermined role, encouraging a whole generation of women photographers and photojournalists to pursue their dreams.
2. Shaping InfluencesMargaret Bourke-White was born on June 14th, 1904 in the Bronx, New York to Minnie Bourke White and Joseph Bourke White. Her mother, a dedicated homemaker, was educated at the Pratt Institute in stenography, at a time when educating women was considered unconventional. Because of this she stressed the importance of education to her children, as Bourke-White recalls in her autobiography Portrait of Myself writing, “When Mother noticed that one of her children had developed some special interest, she had a wise way of leaving books around the house.
“(2) Her father Joseph Bourke White was an engineer who worked with printing presses as well as an avid amateur photographer. Bourke-White recalls memories of this early exposure to photography in her autobiography, writing, “I am fortunate… for father was an enthusiastic photographer .”(4) Her parents were members of the Ethical Culture Society in New York, a religious affiliation that suited the couple’s somewhat unorthodox ideas including their belief in the full support of education for women. This influenced Bourke-White as she was able to pursue higher education and never felt limited in her role as a woman.
In her autobiography she talks of this freedom, writing, “I pictured myself as the scientist… doing all the things that women never do”. (3) She attended Columbia University in 1921, where she became fascinated with photography while taking a course by renowned photographer Clarence H.
White. In this class Bourke-White was introduced to Arthur Wesley Dow’s theories of composition, the influence of which can be seen in the abstract style characterizing her early work. Bourke-White left Columbia after just one semester following her father’s death, but went on to attend seven other universities before finally completing her studies at Cornell University in 1927. While attending Cornell she began to use her photography to support her education financially. She first found work within the university, photographing the campus and selling her photos.
However word of her talent soon got around and she began to receive calls from local architectural and construction firms, asking if she was studying to become a photographer. Bourke-White decided to take her portfolio to York & Sawyer, a large, architectural firm, to see if there was truly a potential career in store for her. After being told by a partner of the firm, that she could ” ‘walk into any architectural office and receive work’ “(246), Bourke-White found the confidence to take up photography as more than just a hobby. She began working for local architectural and construction firms, building her career, not only based upon her talent as a photographer, but also upon an understanding of what her images could do for the corporate identity in industrial America. Bourke-White`s fascination with the industrial world stemmed from her youth.
As a young girl she would often accompany her father on visits to factories. she describes such visits in her autobiography writing,”I saw a foundry for the first time..
.To me at that age, the foundry represented the beginning and end of all beauty.” (225) This fascination for industry from her youth was rekindled through her work in industrial photography as Bourke-White saw true artistry and a subject for her pictures in the factories of industrial America. Her photographs of the Otis Steel Mills in particular, truly cemented and began her career as an industrial photographer. She found great success in the field and was well known throughout her profession. In 1929, Bourke-White was invited to join Fortune magazine as a photographer to document all aspects of business and industry.
She accepted and in 1930, she was sent on her first assignment abroad to capture the growing German industry. Greater ambitions however, took her to the Soviet Union, where she became the first foreign journalist allowed to document the country’s progress. She writes of this in her autobiography stating, “…
I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me.” (312)The emphasis upon human subjects as opposed to machines in her photography from this trip can be seen as a significant step in Bourke-White`s transition from industrial photography to photojournalism, and she returned to the United States with a greater sympathy for the suffering of the American worker. Combining her growing social conscience with her talented photography, Bourke-White became one of the first four photographers, and only female photographer on the staff of a then newly founded Life magazine. Over the next several decades, the magazine grew to become one of the most influential publications in the world, and Bourke-White’s focus shifted from photographing industry and design, to the faces and lives of the twentieth century. She documented historically revolutionary events around the world such as the German Raid of Kremlin, the Apartheid in South Africa, and the partition of India and Pakistan.
She was alive in a time of rapid industrialization as well as political, scientific, and social advancements around the world, and was present to witness and document it all. As she writes in her autobiography,”In this experience of mine, there was one continuing marvel: the precision timing running through it all… as all good photographers like to be—in the right place at the right time”(382).3. WorkAfter moving to what was at the time the nation’s industrial hub Cleveland, Ohio in 1927, Bourke-White began photographing the city’s architecture and industry. Her photographs of the Otis Steel Mills in particular, truly cemented and began her career as an industrial photographer. Despite her success however, Bourke-White faced quite a few obstacles starting out. For starters she was a woman and getting access to the steel factories, where women were not typically allowed was difficult.
However even after doing so she ran into technical problems. The black-and-white film used in photography during her time was not sensitive to the red and orange coloring of hot steel, resulting in her photographs developing black. After four to five months of constant experimentation, she finally solved this problem by using a new style of magnesium flare, which produced white light, to light her scenes. Her improved method of lighting earned her national attention as a pioneering figure in industrial photography, and resulted in some of the best steel factory photographs of this era. Such images gained Bourke-White respect in the field of industrial photography and led to numerous corporate commissions, such as in 1929 when the Chrysler Motor Company hired her to photograph their newest skyscraper, where she shot her famous Chrysler Building: Gargoyle outside Margaret Bourke-White’s Studio (1930) Making a name for herself through such corporate commissions, Bourke-White came to the attention of publishing magnate Henry Luce, who invited her to join the staff of his new magazine, Fortune in 1929.
She accepted and became the magazine’s “star photographer” documenting aspects of American business and industry. In 1930, Bourke-White was sent on her first international assignment to capture the growing German industry. Greater ambitions however, took her to the Soviet Union, where she became the first foreign journalist allowed to document the country’s progress.
Bourke-White returned to the United States with a greater sympathy for the suffering of the American worker, of which was reflected in her apparent transition from industrial photography to photojournalism. With her growing social conscience Bourke-White’s focus shifted from photographing industry and design, to the faces and lives of the twentieth century. 1936 provided just the outlet, as Bourke-White became one of first four photographers on the staff of Life, a then partner magazine of Fortune started by Henry Luce, which took a human-interest angle. In addition to this she was the only female photographer on the team and it was her photograph of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in New Deal, Montana that was used on the magazine’s inaugural edition. In 1940, Bourke-White was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II, and she served as an accredited war correspondent affiliated with both LIFE and the Air Force. Through her dedication to capture the battle in its purest she often found herself in high risk situations. She survived a near death 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 was also present her camera in the spring of 1945 when General George Patton and his troops opened the gates of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, revealing the horrors inside to the outside world. It was moments like these, throughout the war, where Bourke-White`s dedication to her her mission to document global happenings and passion for her craft truly resulted in iconic photojournalism. The result of her hard work lead to eye opening first hand accounts through her photography for an international audience to witness. In addition to the happenings of WWII, Bourke-White used her photography to call the attention of the American audience to the sufferings of poverty-stricken and marginalized communities around the globe.
December of 1949 she went to South Africa for five months where she recorded the cruelty of apartheid, and in 1952 she went to Korea, focusing her photos on family sorrows arising from the war. Bourke-White used her photography to spread awareness, tell the truth, and inspire change as a true trailblazer of her time.