Margaret Bourke-White was an American photographer best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan, the first American female war photojournalist, and to have her photograph on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine.
She transferred colleges several times and ultimately graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927, leaving behind a photographic study of the rural campus for the school’s newspaper, including photographs of her famed dormitory, Risley Hall. A year later, she moved from Ithaca, New York, to Cleveland, Ohio, where she started a commercial photography studio and began concentrating on architectural and industrial photography.
Otis Steel Company was one of Bourke-White’s clients. Her success was due to her skills with both people and her technique. Her experience at Otis is a good example. As she explains in Portrait of Myself, the Otis security people were reluctant to let her shoot for many reasons.
Firstly, steel making was a defence industry, so they wanted to be sure national security was upheld. Also, Bourke-White was a woman, and in those days, people wondered if a woman and her equipment could stand up to the intense heat, hazard, and dirty conditions inside a steel mill.
When she finally got permission, technical problems began.
Black-and-white film in that era was sensitive to blue light, not the reds and oranges of hot steel so she could see the beauty, but the photographs were coming out all black. She solved this problem by bringing along a new style of magnesium flare, which produces white light, and having assistants hold them to light her scenes. Her abilities resulted in some of the best steel factory photographs of that era, which earned her national attention.
Her combination of intelligence, talent, ambition, and flexibility made her an ideal contributor to the new group journalism that developed during the thirties. Bourke-White was already noted as an industrial photographer when she joined the staff of Fortune magazine in 1929 at the age of twenty-five.
Bourke-White accepted a job as associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine, a position she held until 1935. In 1930, she became the first Western photographer allowed to take photographs of Soviet industry. She was the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936. She held the title of staff photographer until 1940, but returned from 1941 to 1942, and again in 1945, after which she stayed through her semi-retirement in 1957 (which ended her photography for the magazine) and her full retirement in 1969.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such a favourite that it was the 1930s’ representative in the United States Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps.
During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange, photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. In the February 15, 1937 issue of Life magazine, her famous photograph of black flood victims standing in front of a sign which declared, “World’s Highest Standard of Living”, showing a white family. The image later would become the basis for the artwork of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album; There’s No Place Like America Today.
During her career at Life, she photographed both Joseph Stalin and Mohandas Gandhi, and a good sampling of what lay between. Bourke-White had an excellent sense of simple, poster-like design, and a sophisticated photographic technique, both perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage. She was excited by the new opportunities presented by photoflash bulbs, which made possible clear and highly detailed pictures under circumstances that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for photography.While in Russia, she photographed a rare occurrence, Joseph Stalin with a smile, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt when visiting Georgia.
Bourke-White’s photographs are in the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as in the collection of the Library of Congress. A 160-foot long photomural she created for NBC in 1933, for the Rotunda in the broadcaster’s Rockefeller Centre headquarters, was destroyed in the 1950s.
In 2014, when the Rotunda and Grand Staircase leading up to it were rebuilt, the photomural was faithfully recreated in digital form on the 360-degree LED screens on the Rotunda’s walls. It forms one of the stops on the NBC Studio Tour.
Many of her manuscripts, memorabilia, photographs, and negatives are housed in Syracuse University’s Bird Library Special Collections section.