Margaret Bourke-White: A Pioneer in American Photography

Margaret Bourke-White: A Pioneer in American Photography

We're celebrating female photographer's who inspire us for Women's History Month and International Women's Day! Our pick is bad-ass pioneer Margaret Bourke-White.  She was truly a pioneer for women and an icon in  American photography.

Bourke-White specialized initially in photographing industry: the men, machines, materials, and buildings that had fascinated her in childhood. But social issues quickly became more important to her, and she often requested assignments to areas of dynamic social change, where strife satisfied her appetite for living dangerously.

In 1930, Bourke-White became the first foreign photographer to have unlimited access to the Soviet Union. The images, published in Soviet magazines as well as Fortune, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and her own book, Eyes on Russia, made Bourke-White one of the most famous photographers in America. In 1935 she was named one of the 20 most notable American women, and in 1936, she was named one of ten.

Bourke-White made some of her most powerful pictures of social injustice during the Louisville, Kentucky, flood of 1937. Landing just minutes before the airport runways flooded, she waded through the city and floated in rafts to get the pictures she wanted. Her photograph of a grim group of African-Americans waiting in a bread line below a billboard of a happy white family which declared, "World's Highest Standard of Living--There's No Way Like the American Way," captured both the difficulty of the flood and the social realities of the times. Later, in Jersey City, N.J., in 1938, she detailed the corruption of mayor "Boss" Frank Hague and substantiated claims of child labor in the city's slums. She had a real knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Bourke-White was the first female documentary photographer to be recognized for her work with the United States armed forces, covering World War II for Life Magazine. And the fact that she did it in a male world, made her success even more spectacular.

In 1941, Bourke-White returned to the Soviet Union with 5 cameras, 22 lenses, 4 developing tanks and 3,000 flashbulbs. Her luggage weighed more than 600 pounds. She was the only photographer in Moscow during the German raid on the Kremlin and she photographed Josef Stalin. Her photos of the siege of Moscow, were featured in her book Shooting the Russian War (1942).

While crossing the Atlantic to North Africa, her transport ship was torpedoed and sunk, but Bourke-White survived with one Rolleifliex camera and covered the bitter daily struggle of the Allied infantrymen in the Italian campaign. The photographs she took from that assignment ran in the March 1 issue of Life. It included a now famous photograph of her just before she flew, dressed in all of the appropriate flying gear. Amazingly, this photograph became one of the Army’s favorite pin-up posters.

Toward the end of the war, she crossed the Rhine River into Germany with General George Patton’s Third Army troops. Her photographs of the emaciated inmates of concentration camps and of the corpses in gas chambers stunned the world.

Her photographs of the emerging industrial age, not only captured world history, but also the history of photography. She pioneered quality photojournalism and the photo essay, and published 11 books. Margaret Bourke-White mastered her medium, but she had the courage, cunning, and intuition to be where news was happening. For example, she interviewed and photographer Mohandas K. Gandhi a few hours before his assassination in India.

Margaret Bourke-White once wrote, “in this experience of mine, there was one continuing marvel: the precision timing running through it all…by some special graciousness of fate I am deposited—as all good photographers like to be—in the right place at the right time”.

Her photographs are in a number of museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is also represented in the collection of the Library of Congress.