Margaret Bourke-White

(1904—1971) American photojournalist

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Photographer. A leading photojournalist from the late 1920s through the early 1950s, she made her reputation with powerful, glamorous images of American industry. Adventurous, courageous, and ambitious, she also documented poverty in the South, recorded events at numerous foreign destinations, and, as a war correspondent, achieved national celebrity with scenes of combat and its consequences. An originator of the sequenced photo-essay, she took care to relate each image to its context and often provided accompanying texts. Born Margaret White in New York, she grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey. She studied at several universities before receiving a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University in 1927. She also studied photography at Clarence White's school in New York. In 1926, when a brief marriage ended, she changed her surname to Bourke-White by adding her mother's maiden name to her own. She made her mark with images of the Ohio steel industry and in 1929 was hired as the principal photographer for Fortune. Despite the difficult economic times of the 1930s, this lavish new business magazine flourished, reproducing her photographs with serious appreciation for their artistic qualities. In 1930 she photographed German factories and was the first foreign photographer to chronicle Russian industrialization. She described her experiences in the USSR in Eyes on Russia (1931), the first of the books that she both wrote and illustrated. When Life magazine began publication in 1936, she numbered among four original staff photographers. Her image of Montana's Fort Peck Dam appeared on the cover of the first issue, while the contents included her synthesis of photographs and writing on New Deal dams, perhaps the first such photo-essay in an American periodical.

In the mid-1930s she collaborated with writer Erskine Caldwell on three books. You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) documents the lives of impoverished Southern tenant farmers. North of the Danube (1939) covers Czechoslovakia during the perilous days before the Nazi takeover, and Say, Is This the U.S.A.? (1941) surveys American life. They married in 1939 but divorced three years later. Bourke-White provided extensive World War II coverage for Life. In 1941 she was the only foreign photographer present during the German bombing of Moscow, an experience she recounted in Shooting the Russian War (1942). As the first woman photographer permitted to accompany the armed forces in action, she sailed to London to cover the Blitz, survived the sinking of a ship in the Mediterranean, and participated in the Italian campaign, the subject of her next book, They Called It “Purple Heart Valley”: A Combat Chronicle of the War in Italy (1944). As the Allies entered Germany, she photographed the country's devastation and the horrors of the concentration camps for Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report on the Collapse of Hitler's “Thousand Years” (1946). In the late 1940s, she photographed Gandhi and the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India (1949) resulted. During the Korean War, she again reported on a ravaged land. In 1952, while still in Korea, she suffered the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease, which increasingly limited her activity. Energetically resisting its toll, she continued working for several years. In 1963 she published an autobiography, Portrait of Myself. She died in Stamford, Connecticut.


Subjects: Art.

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