Summary of Margaret Bourke-White
Following a highly successful early career in architectural and industrial photography, Bourke-White gained international recognition, not so much for her commercial work and/or her art photography, but more for her Photojournalism which came to the public's attention through her long association with LIFE magazine. Emerging as one of, if not the, most respected news photographer of her generation, Bourke-White was an intrepid adventurer who placed herself at the very center of some of the twentieth century's most significant and challenging historical events. She helped chronical the effects of the Great Depression, became the only Western photographer to witness the German invasion of Russia, and claimed the honor of being the first accredited female American WWII photographer. As part of the General Patton cavalcade, meanwhile, she witnessed the liberation of Nazi death camps, including Buchenwald, before attending the creation of Pakistan and the dawning of apartheid in South Africa. Finally, she undertook an end-of-career expedition into the then unknown territories of South Korea. Complementing her early art photography, Bourke-White proved adept at capturing more human moments in the lives of the powerful and the meek in a body of work that ranged from the most uncompromising to the most personal.
- In her early career, Bourke-White was associated with the emergence of Precisionism. Taking its influence from Cubism, Futurism and Orphism, Precisionism (and though not a manifesto-led movement as such) was drawn to skylines, buildings, factories, machinery and industrial landscapes. As the name suggests, Precisionism tended to approach the world with a precise objectivity, though much of Bourke-White's early work drew praise for creative framing techniques that brought out the inherent beauty in industrial and architectural structures.
- Bourke-White's international success coincided with the rise of the photo magazine, of which LIFE was arguably the best known. The photo magazine placed great emphasis on the photo-essay which covered issues of national and international significance. Giving equal weighting to image and text, the photo-essay offered an immediacy that proved hugely popular with the public.
- Given that her images were often planned and considered in their composition, it is in many cases more accurate to describe Bourke-White as a Documentary Photographer. Nevertheless, she, in the enduring spirit of all photojournalist, was engaged in exposing social and/or humanitarian injustices, be those on a domestic or international scale.
Important Art by Margaret Bourke-White
Slag Train, Otis Steel Co.
This photograph shows an interior view of the Otis Steel Company in Cleveland Ohio factory where slag is being captured and placed on a train to be removed from the facility. (In the process of making steel, slag is the material left over after the metal has been separated from its original raw ore form.)
While Bourke-White began her career taking photographs of buildings for architects, she quickly moved onto industrial photographs. This work is an important example of her most famous series on this subject, that of the inner workings of the Otis Steel Company. Still establishing herself, Bourke-White had to work hard to convince the company's head Elroy Kulas to allow a woman access to his sites. Historian Vicki Goldberg describes how once inside she received complaints from the night supervisor who stated that she was distracting everyone, "crawling all over the place [...] and the men are stumbling around gawking up at her. Someone is going to get hurt, and besides, they're not getting any work done". In an act of the determination Bourke-White would display throughout her life, she refused to give up and went back to the factory wearing jeans and as Goldberg continued, "sometimes she crept so close to the flame that the varnish on her camera blistered and her face turned red as if from sunburn. Nothing stopped her....". Many years later she said of this project: "I feel that my experimental work at Otis Steel was more important to me than any other single thing in my photographic development".
Though Bourke-White managed to both capture the gritty reality and intensity of what it was like in a factory, she simultaneously made industrial machinery and processes come alive through artistically composed and framed images that celebrated the inherent beauty in these objects. It was through these works indeed that she became associated with the early 20th century art movement Precisionism that included artists such as Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler. Her industrial images brought her to the attention of Henry Luce who would launch her career in photojournalism.
Gelatin silver print - Collection of Howard Greenburg Gallery, New York
Chrysler Building, New York City
As its title confirms, this photograph is of the iconic Chrysler Building in New York City. Framed at an oblique angle, Bourke-White captures the uppermost point of the building as if the viewer is staring up at it.
In the winter of 1929-30, Bourke-White was assigned the job of photographing every phase in the building's construction process. It was thought to be the tallest in the world but, according to historian Vicki Goldberg, some "skeptics said the steel tower atop it was nothing but an ornament added to bring it to record height [and] Margaret's photographs were meant to prove that the tower was integral to the architecture". Working in freezing winds, Bourke-White positioned herself on a swaying tower some eight hundred feet above street level in order to get the desired shots. An adventure seeker from an early age, Bourke-White warmed to the challenges of the project and speaking of it stated that "with three men holding the tripod so the camera would not fly into the street and endanger pedestrians ... my camera cloth whipping and stinging my eyes as I focused ... I tried to get the feel of the tower's sway in my body so I could make exposures during that fleeting instant ... when ... the tower was at the quietest part of its sway".
In this image, we see the finished tower, captured in such a way as to highlight the extent of its architectural design and it is a truly modern photograph. The building became personal for Bourke-White who so admired it that it affected her decision to move to New York. She rented a studio in the building and, according to Goldberg, she would have lived there as well except personal residences were not allowed except for the building's janitor and while she tried to apply for the position (of janitor) it was already filled.
Gelatin silver print - Collection of LIFE Gallery of Photography
The Louisville Flood
Bourke-White began her career in the early 1930s, and in 1937 when the Ohio River flooded Louisville Kentucky, she was sent to the area as a staff photographer for LIFE magazine. Documenting what was one of the largest natural disasters in the history of the United States, Bourke-White's image offered a commentary on perceived racial and economic inequities. This photograph shows African-Americans queuing outside a flood relief agency in front of a billboard, produced by National Association of Manufacturers, that depicts a cheerful white middle-class family in their car. The billboard's heading "World's Highest Standard of Living," and the slogan "There's no way like the American Way," can be treated with ironic skepticism given the reality that is playing out in front of the "myth".
Ranking alongside the likes of Arthur Rothstein and work of the FSA photographers (who documented the devastation of the Dust Bowl earlier in the decade), The Louisville Flood photograph has taken on iconic status in the field of American, and international photojournalism. Confirming, the legacy of this work, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibits the image with the following caption: "as a powerful depiction of the gap between the propagandist representation of American life and the economic hardship faced by minorities and the poor, Bourke-White's image has had a long afterlife in the history of photography".
Gelatin silver print - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The caption for this photograph, as it appeared in LIFE magazine in 1943, states: "Flying Fortress is photographed by Margaret Bourke-White as it heads east along cloud-banked Mediterranean coast to bomb Axis airport near Tunis". Beautifully composed, the photograph consists of the bomber dominating the top half of the image as an abstracted land mass is shown below. Bourke-White's fearless determination and general brio enabled her to become the first female combat photographer.
This image represents the body of work Bourke-White produced during her time covering World War II. Towards the end of the conflict, she fought hard to get permission to follow troops into battle and to use her camera to capture military action. When her request was finally approved, she was assigned to North Africa where she accompanied American troops. The plane she was travelling in was transporting the foot-soldiers to the ground combat effort. Outside of the context of conflict, the image is evidence of Bourke-White's mastery of aerial photography. A pet subject of hers, she once stated, "airplanes to me were always a religion".
Gelatin silver print - Collection of LIFE Picture Gallery/Getty Images
Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Germany
Perhaps the most poignant and iconic of all her photographs, Bourke-White's photograph captures prisoners at the moment of liberation for prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. A line of men in stripped shirts and pants stare out at the viewer from behind a fence of barbed wire.
Some of the most moving works of Bourke-White's career were those taken for a LIFE assignment to cover the liberation of prisoners at Buchenwald. In describing this harrowing photograph, historian Vicki Goldberg noted that, though finally liberated, "the skeletal figures stare from her photograph with the eyes of men who have seen too much [...] No one registers joy, relief, or even recognition; it is as if they have died and yet are keeping watch. The frame cuts off the lineup on either side, making it seem like a fragment of a group that goes on forever".
Though this image was framed with a detached objectivity, the profound horrors of the war were not lost on Bourke-White. Later, when explaining how she approached these images, she stated, "I have to work with a veil over my mind. In photographing the murder camps, the protective veil was so tightly drawn that I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw prints of my own photographs. It was as though I was seeing these horrors for the first time. I believe many correspondents worked in the same self-imposed stupor. One has to, or it is impossible to stand it". Though the photograph rather speaks for itself, it becomes all the more powerful when one considers that Bourke-White was of Jewish heritage herself. Yet even despite her own ancestry, and, through her work, personally and professionally embroiled in one of the most appalling events in modern world history, she declined to acknowledge her own Jewish heritage (and not even in later life when it came to writing her autobiography).
Gelatin silver print - Collection of International Center of Photography, New York
Gandhi at His Spinning Wheel
Bourke-White arrived in India in March 1946 where she worked on a feature for LIFE (later titled "India's Leaders") published on May 27, 1946. She took many photographs of the Civil-Disobedience pioneer, Mohandas Gandhi, often with his family or in worship (and even on his death bed). But what would become the most famous of his portraits, Gandhi at His Spinning Wheel, did not appear until the following month, and only then as part of a much smaller article ( though the image was reprinted in February 1948 as part of a multi-page eulogy - entitled "India Loses Her Great Soul" - to Gandhi immediately following his assassination) focused on Gandhi's fascination with natural cures for India's sick. LIFE wrote: "It is characteristic of the Mahatma that at this moment [at the age of 76] when his lifelong crusade for a free India seems to have reached its final crisis, he is taking time out from a busy political life to preach a nature cure. Gandhi has no license to practice, of course, but to ask the Mahatma for such a document would be like requiring President Truman to produce his airplane ticket when he boards [the first presidential airplane, nicknamed] the Sacred Cow".
On her arrival in India, Gandhi was living in a slum amongst the country's so-called "untouchables". According to historian Vicki Goldberg, Gandhi's secretary asked the photographer if she knew how to spin since the wheel was deeply symbolic of Gandhi's "drive to rid the land of British dominion". Since Bourke-White didn't weave, the secretary concluded that she could not truly empathize with Gandhi and insisted she take a crash-course in spinning before meeting him. A note sent to LIFE's office in New York accompanying Bourke-White's image read: "Spinning is raised to the heights almost of a religion with Gandhi and his followers. The spinning wheel is sort of an Ikon to them. Spinning is a cure all, and is spoken of in terms of the highest poetry". Once granted entry into Gandhi's room, Bourke-White learned that it was his day of silence and was compelled to go about one of her most famous portrait assignments without interacting with her sitter. In a memo to LIFE's editors, she wrote "Gh. [a common shorthand for Gandhi in the notes] spinning wheel in foreground, which he has just finished using. It would be impossible to exaggerate the reverence in which Gh's 'own personal spinning wheel' is held in the ashram".
Gelatin silver print - Collection of LIFE Picture Gallery/Getty Images
God is Black
In 1948 the South African National Party (SANP) won an election in which it pledged to impose (sustain) a racial hierarchy - apartheid - that would ensure the survival of white supremacy for generations to come. LIFE's editorial viewed the SANP's victory as a very worrying development and that this most toxic system of racism had the potential to destabilize the uneasy world peace that had followed the end of WWII. LIFE assigned Bourke-White to produce a portfolio that would bring the racial injustices of apartheid to the attention of the American public. Indeed, her featured photo-essay, "South Africa and its Problems", was most Americans' first introduction to the flagrant racial injustices facing Black South Africans.
Arriving in late 1949, Bourke-White spent six months traveling throughout South Africa and areas of South West Africa (then under the rule of the former). She produced some 5,000 photographs covering subjects that ranged from landscapes to portraits of political officials, "native" women, farm and diamond and gold mine workers, and convicted petty criminals being subjected to hard labor at gunpoint. Her images also shone a light on the infamous "tot system" under which workers, including children, were paid in part with cheap wine thereby creating an alcohol dependent labor force. There is little doubt that Bourke-White's images succeeded in exposing the structures that oppressed indigenous South Africans. But the photo-essay drew criticism too - not least from Bourke-White herself - for failing to acknowledge the rise of the dynamic and powerful anti-apartheid resistance.
God is Black was the last, and smallest, photograph in the essay. It shows an ornamental plinth in front of Johannesburg's city hall onto which someone has chalked "God is Black". LIFE captioned the image simply by suggesting that the words had been written by a "resentful native". Bourke-White, who also submitted images of anti-apartheid leaders and activists (though none of the African National Congress (ANC) or Nelson Mandela), felt that this image carried deeper significance. In a note to her editors, she explained that the graffiti was in fact symptomatic of the "growing racial self-consciousness of the black folk of South Africa". The fact that Bourke-White's images of the resistance were supressed (God is Black notwithstanding) by LIFE was, according to LIFE historian John Edwin Mason, "because many of the demonstrations and activists that organized them were [wrongly] associated with the Communist Party of South Africa", and given the "anti-communist fervor that pervaded American culture at the time, editors may well have believed that they were doing black South Africans a favor by remaining silent about activism".
Gelatin silver print - Collection of LIFE Picture Gallery/Getty Images
Nim Churl Jin and his mother, Korea
Two figures dominate this composition. On the left, a young man, Nim Churl Jin, embraces his mother. Arms wrapped around each other; they appear oblivious to the camera as they crouch together in a field. One of her more intimate photographs, Bourke-White succeeds here in capturing a universal private moment - a long-awaited reunion between a son and his mother.
Having recently been the subject of slanderous accounts that called into question her patriotism and left-leaning political allegiances, she sought to travel once more overseas. This work was in fact one of her last major assignments for LIFE magazine and the result of a trip she had long wanted to take to South Korea; a country she believed was largely unknown to the Western world.
During her time there, she came into contact with a twenty-nine-year-old man who had been forced to work as a guerilla for two years but had recently surrendered giving him immunity from prosecution. Desperate to return home, Bourke-White was granted permission to help him return to his family and so set out with him and an interpreter. Upon reaching his village, she was able to capture the tearful reunion of a son and a mother who had long feared she would never see him again. While Bourke-White had captured many moving events throughout her long and distinguished career, this moment had the most profound impact on her professional life. When asked why she considered it to be the most important picture she had ever taken, Bourke-White stated, "this time my heart was moved".
Gelatin silver print - Collection of LIFE Picture Gallery/Getty Images
Biography of Margaret Bourke-White
Childhood and Education
Margaret Bourke-White, the second of three children, was born to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White. Her father was Jewish but the couple chose to raise their children in their mother's Christian faith. It was a decision that would have a profound impact on Margaret who struggled with her "secret" Jewish heritage into adult life.
Margaret and her siblings were raised by a strict mother who demanded high standards of behavior and educational achievement. It was her father, however, who had the deeper impact on her childhood. An engineer and inventor who was responsible for developments to the rotary press, Joseph, according to historian Vicki Goldberg, "introduced Margaret to the world of machines" and shared with her his love of the camera, allowing her to help him develop pictures in the family bathtub. It was of little surprize, then, when some years later Bourke-White produced her first professional series of images of industrial machines.
Bourke-White prized her independence from an early age; breaking away from her family home as soon as she was able (to the chagrin of her mother). Commenting on her wanderlust, the artist herself supplied the following anecdote: "in my case running away began when I was such a tiny girl - I usually managed to negotiate a block or two before Mother caught up with me - that she began dressing me in a bright red sweater with a sign sewed on the back: 'My name is Margaret Bourke-White. I live at 210 North Mountain Avenue [...] Please bring me home.' This amused passers-by so much that I stopped running away, but I never stopped wanting to travel".
In 1921 Bourke-White began attending college at Columbia University where she studied biology. However, tragedy struck shortly after when her father suffered a serious stroke and died less than a year later.
Devastated at the loss of her father, and perhaps in an effort to honor his memory, Bourke-White took up photography and enrolled on a course at the Clarence H. White School. A famed artist (and no relation to Bourke-White) White taught her the foundations for what would be her future career. Her mother also showed support for her daughter by buying her her first camera. In fact, her camera soon provided her with a regular source of income. Demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit, Bourke-White became a part-time photography counsellor and started a business taking and selling picture postcards of the camp to attendees and at a local gift shop.
Still struggling to meet her school fees, however, Bourke-White received unexpected help from the Mungers; siblings who ran a charity supporting promising college students. With their support she transferred to the University of Michigan to study herpetology (becoming well known amongst her classmates as the girl who kept a pet snake in her dorm room). Despite her major she continued to pursue her love of photography, working, for instance, on the school yearbook.
While in Michigan she began dating engineering student Everett Chapman. They married on June 13, 1924 but the union was troubled from the beginning; not least because of a strong personality clash with her new mother-in-law. Bourke-White was forced to leave school and move to Purdue, Indiana for Chapman's work and when she found she was pregnant in December of that year the couple decided jointly that she would have an abortion, a decision that would bring about the end of their marriage. After a move to Cleveland, in 1925, Bourke-White began taking evening classes at Case Western Reserve. Now a single woman (although it would be several years before they finalized their divorce) she moved to New York and enrolled in Cornell University where she finally graduated with a biology degree in 1927.
Bourke-White's professional career as a photographer began in earnest in 1927 when she took a trip to New York and met the architect Benjamin Moskowitz. He liked her portfolio and encouraged her to pursue work as an architectural photographer, which she did but only after moving to Cleveland to be nearer to her family. As her architectural photography evolved, so too did her sense for fashion and she drew attention for taking pictures throughout the city wearing dresses whose colors matched her velvet camera cloths.
Eventually, Bourke-White's passion for photographing buildings would evolve to take in industrial sites. Of this she stated, "I loved it [the architectural work] but I felt that wasn't the ultimate goal, [but rather] the means to an end. The thing I really wanted to do was to take industrial photographs. I knew that from the beginning. I didn't know whether I would ever be able to sell them. I didn't even realize I was doing something very new. But the impulse was so strong that I had to take industrial pictures". Her new (though in truth it can be traced back to the influence of her beloved father) interest coincided with the emergence of a group of painters who were taking similar objects as the focus for their work. According to Goldberg, she, like those artists, responded, "to the clean shapes, the implicit geometry, the power and the promise of machine forms". While Bourke-White would become perhaps the most famous industrial photographer of her day, her subject matter also served to associate her with the Precisionism group. Specifically, it was her series of photographs of the Cleveland Terminal Tower and later her photographs of Otis Steel that gave her her first tastes of fame. Working within such a male dominated industry, Bourke-White would face resistance from factory owners reluctant to let her roam freely about their sites. In another anecdote, suspecting she was engaged in criminality, Cleveland police officers challenged her as she wandered the city's riverfront at night. Having ascertained that she was not in fact a criminal, but rather an artist, they assisted her on her riverside shoots by providing escorts and even cleaning away litter where required.
The first major shift towards Bourke-White's publishing career took place when Henry Luce saw her Otis Steel pictures and met with her in May of 1929. Impressed with her work, he offered her a job photographing images for his soon-to-launch magazine, Fortune. She was the first photographer to receive prominent name credit and she photographed the main article in Fortune's first issue. Arriving in New York City during the winter of 1929 to photograph the Chrysler building, she decided to move to the city permanently and established a studio in said building.
Through her magazine shots, Bourke-White became well known to the general public who were fascinated by the lengths she would go to make the desired photograph. According to Goldberg, "she waltzed over heights like an aerialist in high-heeled velvet slippers. Photographs exist of her poised, in a neat, head-hugging cloche, on a Cleveland rooftop with her camera and tripod. Other photographs show her standing on ledges high above the city with both hands on her camera. None of this was merely a stunt; she would do anything to get the best picture". Bourke-White would also gain a reputation for being demanding and fractious. Goldberg describes for instance a 1933 newspaper story that stated: "[she] prefers industrial subjects to people because she feels they are more truly expressive of our age". That assertion, however, contradicted an active social life through which she engaged in several affairs, often with married men.
Bourke-White's success lay in large part to her ability to push herself to do new things. On an assignment to photograph industries in Germany in June 1930, Bourke-White obtained rare permission to enter Russia to photograph Moscow factories. It would be the first of several trips to the country and it was in Moscow, in 1931, that a shift in her career took place. She had decided to focus less on machines and more on the people working the machines. Her images of the country would also result in a one-time foray into motion pictures when she created two short travel films about Russia. As a result of her "human interest" work in Russia, Bourke-White decided to focus on creating images that made a social statement and duly agreed to work on a book project with playwright Erskine Caldwell. Travelling throughout the country they photographed the plight of rural Americans in the depression-hit South.
In 1936, Henry Luce once again offered Bourke-White a vehicle to advance her career. Hiring her to work for his newly launched picture magazine, LIFE; her inaugural assignment, photographing the dams being constructed in the Columbia River Basin as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal building programme, was a great success and became the lead story for LIFE's first issue. She became the first female photographer for the magazine and helped define what it meant to be a photo essayist.
In addition to her work for LIFE, Bourke-White continued to work with Caldwell with whom she regularly travelled on projects. Adding to their first book about the Southern states, You Have Seen Their Faces, published to great success in 1937, the pair published two further books, North of the Danube in 1939 and Say, is this the U.S.A in 1941. Caldwell was married, but the two fell in love and lived together in secret until he eventually divorced his wife. They married on February 27, 1939 and tried to have a child but without success.
Bourke-White briefly left LIFE for a new magazine, PM, in 1940, though she only stayed for four months before returning to LIFE. It was during her second tenure that she began to cover World War II, making her LIFE's first American war photographer. One of her early assignments took her to Russia which resulted in a freestanding book about her experiences entitled Shooting the Russian War published in 1942. She also photographed the British air fleet, the thirteen Flying Fortresses, as they prepared for their first mission and was honored with the opportunity to name a plane (which she christened the Flying Flitgun). Her travels overseas soon took its toll on her marriage and in November 1942 Caldwell filed for divorce.
Turning to work for distraction, she gained permission to join a combat mission in North Africa, but, in December 1942 the ship she was travelling on was torpedoed. Her ordeal only brought her more kudos with the public. According to Goldberg, "Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 movie, Lifeboat, which starred Tallulah Bankhead as a journalist who saves her makeup and her mink coat after a torpedo strike, was widely thought to be inspired by Margaret's adventure". Once she had arrived in Africa, she shot the March 1, 1943 LIFE cover story entitled "Life's Bourke-White Goes Bombing - First woman to accompany U.S. Air Force on combat mission photographs attacks on Tunis". She also published two more books featuring her war coverage, They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" in 1944 and Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly in 1945.
In the immediate post war years, Bourke-White's intrepid work for LIFE gave her the opportunity to capture what would become some of twentieth century history's turning points. First, in 1946, she was sent to photograph Mohandas Gandhi, later publishing a book on her journey in 1947 titled Halfway to Freedom. Later in 1948, Bourke-White interviewed Gandhi just hours before he was assassinated. Soon after, in 1950, Bourke-White travelled to South Africa to document the horrors of apartheid for LIFE.
The last decades of Bourke-White's life were not without controversy. She was accused of Communist sympathies due to her long-time interest in Russia; something the FBI had been tracking through an open file on the artist since 1940. While nothing came of the inquiries, it served to leave Bourke-White shaken and wishing to make a social statement on injustices she travelled to Korea in 1952 to photograph people who, according to Goldberg, she felt had been largely neglected by the world.
The last two decades of Bourke-White's life were profoundly impacted by her diagnosis in 1954 with Parkinson's disease. While she was still able to work for a time, and she even published her autobiography, Portrait of Myself in 1963. In 1969 she had to give up her work and her diagnosis proved to be the eventual cause of her death at the young age of sixty-seven. Despite her personal tragedy, she offered a moment objective reflection, "I wouldn't want to change any of my life even if I had the chance, because it's been the life I wanted [...] I think I've been particularly fortunate; even my two broken marriages and the illness have been important to my own growth and development".
The Legacy of Margaret Bourke-White
Margaret Bourke-White's legacy in the world of art photography, Documentary and Photojournalism is profound. A true trailblazer, she brought an element of excitement and adventure to her profession. Responsible for many "firsts" - the first industrial photographer, LIFE's first female photographer, the first American female war photojournalist, the first woman to take her camera into combat zones - she proved a role model for future generations of professional female photographers including the likes of Lynsey Addario, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, and Susan Meiselas.
Her photographs are held in many leading museums including a collection of her work in the Library of Congress. In 1933 she created a photomural for NBC in its Rockefeller Center headquarters though it was destroyed in 1950. When, in 2014, the Rotunda and Grand Staircase were rebuilt, Bourke-White's photomural was faithfully recreated as on a 360-degree digital wall which now stands as a centrepiece on the NBC Studio Tour.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Margaret Bourke-White
- Portrait of MyselfOur PickBy Margaret Bourke-White
- You Have Seen Their FacesBy Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White