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Margaret Bourke-White, A Woman of Many Firsts

14 Apr 2022 1:48 PM | Laura Mansur, Cr. Photog., CPP (Administrator)

 Margaret Bourke-White was a respected industrial and social photographer during the 1930's until her death in 1971.  Her images of Mahandas Gandhi, Joseph Stalin and the liberation of concentration camps in Buchenwald, Germany provided her early notoriety.   Bourke-White was a woman of many firsts.  She was attached to the U.S. Army in Germany & Italy and became the first western photographer allowed in to the Soviet Union, and was also the first female war correspondent to travel into combat zones during World War ll.   She became a symbol of swashbuckling photography. 

Bourke-White was born in New York City on June 24, 1904.   She studied photography under Clarence White at Columbia University, and began her career by specializing in architectural photography.   "Bourke- White had an excellent sense of simple, poster like design, perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage".   Where many would see industrial blights, she saw arabesque shapes and geometric figures. 

 With the onset of The Great Depression, her images chronicled  the course of the mid 1930's.  The Depression caused a steady deterioration of living conditions and quality of life for Americans through the United States, and she captured the images.   Bourke-White saw firsthand the effect of the economic downturn and became interested in politics.   The beginning of Bourke-White's photojournalistic style occurred when she decided to explore the human side of the changing world around her. 

When Bourke-White joined the staff of Fortune magazine in 1929 at the age of twenty five, she made several trips to the Soviet Union and in 1931 published 'Eyes on Russia'.    In 1935, she met the Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell and during her brief marriage to him, she published three illustrated books: '

You Have Seen Their Faces'( 1937), about Southern sharecroppers,

'North of the Danube'1939), about life in Czechoslovakia before the Nazi takeover.

'Say, Is this the U. S. A.'(1941) a documentary of the Dust Bowl.

She was criticized for her portrayal of Southern whites as being racists, and her commitment to social causes became evident in her images. 

The images she captured were and still are unforgettable: a line of black flood victims in Kentucky with a billboard of a happy white family in the background.   Mohandas Ghandi reading a newspaper with a spinning wheel in the foreground.  She actually interviewed and photographed him a few hours before he was assassinated, and had a knack of being in the right place at the right time enabling her to photograph world events. 

 In 1941 she traveled with special envoy, Harry Hopkins, who was sent by President Roosevelt to determine the Russian leader's commitment o fight Germany in WW ll.    Among her images are a rare "smiling Stalin" and Stalin's grandma in the republic of Georgia.  On this same trip, The German forces began invading Moscow and she was the only foreign photographer to capture images of the devastation.   Hopkins carried her film out of the country in a diplomatic pouch and into the photo labs of 'Life"'magazine. 

In spring of 1945, she travelled through a war torn Germany with Patton's troops.   Entering the Buchenwald concentration camp with the liberation forces, she captured the first images of the surviving Holocaust victims.  "Using a camera was almost a relief.  It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.", she said.

Biographer and critic Vicky Goldberg referred to the portraits by Bourke-White as "the posed candid" because she preferred a classical composition to photograph everyday people when she worked outdoors.   Her husband Erskine Caldwell gives us insight into her ability to compose a scene. "She was in charge of everything, manipulating people and telling them where to sit and where to look and what not. That's how she achieved such a good effect. "

In conclusion, Margaret Bourke-White was a fascinating woman, artist and photographer who documented world events and portrayed the human side of those events. 

Respectfully submitted by:

Laura Mansur Guerra



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