Behind the Lens
Pioneering Lens: The Remarkable Journey of Margaret Bourke-White, Iconic Photographer and Trailblazer
She was brass, and she kept it shined. She was that good. And she usually was first. Margaret Bourke-White, photojournalist—“Maggie the Indestructible” she was called around Life magazine—was the first photographer at Fortune magazine, and among the first at Life, where she had the first cover story and was the only woman among the inaugural four staff photographers. She was the first woman accredited by the U.S. Armed Services and the first to fly in a combat mission. She was the only foreign journalist to cover the Nazi bombing of Moscow, and she had the last photo session with Mahatma Gandhi. As one of the first-teamers at Life, she helped define what it meant to make photojournalism:
To be there at the door of history, to know what it is like to live fully in one’s time and within the moment that is given, to know the direction of the blowing wind and to catch it and ride it. Margaret Bourke-White was bombed and survived, was strafed and survived, was torpedoed and survived, and she fell from the sky in a helicopter and survived. She dared high places—along the face of the new Chrysler Building in New York City, for instance—and she acted as one with the lowly and looked death in the eye. And when her own time came early, at 67, she died in a home where her wall displayed a poster-sized image of the trees she had photographed in Czechoslovakia.
Maggie the Indestructible began her serious work in photography with Clarence White, one of artists who led the process of defining a beautiful photograph early in the 20th century, and who established a school in his name, associated with Columbia University, where, in 1922, Bourke-White had enrolled as an undergraduate to study biology. Her elective study with White formed a strong orientation to the compositional priorities of Pictorialism, and she continued to fill the frame of her image with clarity and strength. That was her skill— filling up the frame, grandly, leaving little for guesswork.
After college (she graduated from Cornell University in 1927) her soft focus crystallized to a modernist’s hard edge. She found a subject in the musculature of the heavy industry in the Cleveland area. “A dynamo is as beautiful as a vase,” she said. And while her work followed the rhetorical lessons of Pictorialism, such as with the effective use of repetition in Hydro Generators, Niagara Falls Power Company and Fort Peck Dam (the cover image from that first Life magazine, November 23, 1936), it became something else. Yes, she took the lesson from Arthur Wesley Dow, the early 20th century critic and lecturer she heard at Columbia, who argued for the dramatic effect of a slice of light or rake of shadow. This affect appears dramatically in Romance of Steel, with a title still clinging to the connotations of a previous era. The image won first prize in the 1930 Cleveland Museum of Art regional exhibition. But Bourke-White’s sympathies were elsewhere—no longer with the connotations of soft focus. Her lens looked hard at just what was out there. New technologies had grown up in this fast changing 20th century. Her photographs carried the banner of change, and the tough mind and hopeful spirit of a New Deal.
She quickly rose in opportunity and fame, as Henry R. Luce’s favorite photographer. He discovered her and in 1929, brought her on for Fortune, his new magazine, and for its first year, she was the magazine’s only photographer. Then in 1936, Luce brought her over to his new Life. Bourke-White was confident, tough and smart. She got it done, and usually better than expected. That first cover, assigned to reveal the largest earthen dam in America, developed in her eye as a story about the new life on the frontier, now on the shoulders of technology rather than cattle, not simply a story about a big public work. She had covered the industrial development of Russia and had been the first outsider to gain permission there. She knew what she was doing, and how to look around corners for the full story. Her powerfully designed, bold-yet-simple compositions captured the Soviet’s sense of themselves as an emerging power. Then she photographed the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and sharecroppers in the South. She worked with the novelist Erskine Caldwell, later her husband of three years (1939–42). Their fine book together, You Have Seen Their Faces, about the Depression South, is not sufficiently recognized. If it takes liberties with quotations, it remains assertively true to the facts of the matter of poverty, and it effected significant social change.
When she had the chance, she took the liberty to pose and design a shot; she was notorious for packing hundreds of pounds of gear, including multiple flash setups that she employed to render the dark insides of industrial sites that attracted her. She overshot and counted on her assistants back at Life, a staff the envy of her colleagues, to process and print, when feasible, to her specifications.
Her work, almost always made for publication, is rarely signed. Of the 335 images (and 75 contact sheets) by Bourke-White in the George Eastman House collection, only three are signed, “Bourke White” on two lines, with a great flourishing “W”, though she also signed her full name more modestly, too. Two of the images are signed on the mount in the lower right, and one on the print in the lower left. The remainder is stamped by her—“A Margaret Bourke-White Photograph”—with the stamp or copyright of the originating publication.
She also published with The New York Times Magazine and the short-lived liberal newspaper without ads, PM. Finally, she created several portfolios—one with Time-Life just before she died, another about Russia in the early ’30s. Bourke-White was first in line to cover the Second World War in North Africa and in Europe, following General Patton into Germany and documenting the concentration camp horrors of Buchenwald upon cease-fire. “Nothing attracts me like a closed door,” she said in her autobiography, Portrait of Myself in 1963.
The late Jack Naylor, a pilot during the war who became a prominent collector of photographs and photo technology, remembered clicking the shutter of her camera for her breezy self-portrait in front of his plane. He would take her on reconnaissance flights and into combat, and recalled her fearlessness and fierce determination to get the image. After the War, she continued to report on the conflicts in India over partition with Pakistan, and on labor conditions in the mines in South Africa; and later on, the guerilla conflicts after ceasefire in Korea. Only the development of Parkinson’s disease slowed her and eventually brought her career with Life to a halt in 1957. She died in 1971.
George Eastman House has all of her books and those about her. Time-Life Picture Collection in New York preserves her negatives. The largest collection of her work is held by Syracuse University. Other large collections are held in the Cleveland Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art. In two separate books, Vicki Goldberg and Sean Callahan write well about her life. Farrah Fawcett portrayed her in a 1989 television movie, Double Exposure, and Candice Bergen portrayed her in the 1982 theatrical release, Gandhi. John Szarkowski, writing on his appreciation of the collection he curated at the Museum of Modern Art, termed her “one of the most famous and most successful photographers of her time,” praising “her combination of intelligence, talent, ambition and flexibility….” Said Bourke-White, “Work is something you can count on, a trusted lifelong friend, who never deserts you.”
Anthony Bannon is the seventh director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York.