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Margaret Bourke-White Photo

Margaret Bourke-White Artworks

American Photographer

Born: June14, 1904 - New York, New York
Died: August 27, 1971 - Stamford, Connecticut

Progression of Art


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 (1937)

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

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Margaret Bourke-White Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 06 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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