American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was a leader in the new field of photo-journalism. As a staff photographer for FORTUNE and LIFE magazines, she covered the major political and social issues of the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in New York City on June 14, 1904, Margaret Bourke-White was the daughter of Joseph and Minnie White. (She added "Bourke, " her mother's name, after her first marriage ended). One of the original staff photographers for LIFE magazine, she was a pioneer in the field of photo-journalism. She photographed the leading political figures of her time: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mahatma Gandhi. She also called attention to the suffering of unknown people, from the poor sharecroppers in America to the oppressed Black coalminers in South Africa. An adventuresome lady who loved to fly, Bourke-White was the first accredited woman war correspondent during World War II and the first woman to accompany a bombing mission.
Bourke-White first revealed her talent for photography while a student at Cornell University. Using a secondhand Ica Reflex camera with a broken lens, she sold pictures of the scenic campus to other students. After graduation she opened a studio in Cleveland, where she found the industrial landscape "a photographic paradise." Initially specializing in architectural photography, her prints of the Otis Steel factory came to the attention of TIME magazine publisher Henry Luce, who was planning a new publication devoted to the glamour of business.
In the spring of 1929 Bourke-White accepted Luce's offer to become the first staff photographer for FORTUNE magazine, which made its debut in February 1930. Her subjects included the Swift meatpacking company, shoemaking, watches, glass, papermills, orchids, and banks. Excited by the drama of the machine, she made several trips to the Soviet Union and was the first photographer to seriously document its rapid industrial development. She published her work in the book Eyes on Russia (1931).
Bourke-White, working out of a New York City studio in the new Chrysler Building, also handled lucrative advertising accounts. In 1934, in the midst of the Depression, she earned over $35, 000. But a FORTUNE assignment to cover the drought in the Plains states opened her eyes to human suffering and steered her away from advertising work. She began to view photography less as a purely artistic medium and increasingly as a powerful tool for informing the public. In 1936 she collaborated with Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, on a photo-essay revealing social conditions in the South. The results of their efforts became her best-known book, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937).
In the fall of 1936 Bourke-White joined the staff of LIFE magazine, which popularized the photo-essay. Her picture of the Fort Peck dam in Montana adorned the cover of LIFE's first issue, November 11, 1936. On one of her first assignments she flew to the Arctic circle. While covering the Louisville flood in 1937 she composed her most famous single photograph, contrasting a line of Black people waiting for emergency relief with an untroubled white family in its car pictured on a billboard with a caption celebrating the American way of life.
In early 1940 Bourke-White worked briefly for the new pictorial newspaper PM, but by October she returned to LIFE as a free lance photographer. With Erskine Caldwell (to whom she was married from 1939 to 1942) she travelled across the United States and produced the book Say Is This the U.S.A.? In the spring of 1941 they were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded Russia.
During World War II Bourke-White served as an accredited war correspondent affiliated with both LIFE and the Air Force. She survived a torpedo attack on a ship she was taking to North Africa and accompanied the bombing mission which destroyed the German airfield of El Aouina near Tunis. She later covered the Italian campaign (recorded in the book They Called It "Purple Heart Valley") and was with General George Patton in spring 1945 when his troops opened the gates of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Her photos revealed the horrors to the world.
In 1946 LIFE sent Bourke-White to India to cover the story of its independence. Before she was allowed to meet Mahatma Gandhi she was required to learn how to use the spinning wheel. Frustrated at the moment because of a deadline, she later reflected, "Nonviolence was Gandhi's creed, and the spinning wheel was the perfect weapon."
On a second trip to India to witness the creation of Pakistan, Bourke-White was the last journalist to see Gandhi, only a couple of hours before his assassination.
In December of 1949 she went to South Africa for five months where she recorded the cruelty of apartheid. In 1952 she went to Korea, where her pictures focused on family sorrows arising from the war. Shortly after her return from Korea she first noticed signs of Parkinson's disease, the nerve disorder which she battled for the remaining years of her life. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, was started in 1955 and completed in 1963. On August 27, 1971, Margaret Bourke-White died at her home in Darien, Connecticut. She left behind a legacy as a determined woman, an innovative visual artist, and a compassionate human observer.
Further Reading on Margaret Bourke-White
Margaret Bourke-White wrote or co-authored 11 books. Her most famous is You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with Erskine Caldwell, on social conditions in the South during the Depression. Also see her informative autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). There are two good collections of her photographs which also contain biographical information, For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White by Jonathon Silverman (1983) and The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, edited by Sean Callahan (1972).