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Monday, June 16, 2014

Margaret Bourke-White

While other photo-journalists took shots of the 1937 Kentucky floodwaters,
Bourke-White captured a much drier, ironic image of the human suffering.
Margaret Bourke-White, 1930s
One of the most persistent words encountered by those who write about art, or history, or art history, is the simple little five-letter word, "first." History all but demands this word near the top of virtually every such item, preferably in the headline itself. Art is quite fond of the word. (Who cares who painted the world's second abstract painting?) In art history, the word can mean the difference between a million-dollar masterpiece and virtual anonymity. Who painted the Progresso Soup Cans? The same rule holds true for photographers. And if your name happened to be Margaret Bourke-White, the list of "firsts" would be as long as your camera lens. Unfortunately, for many such outstanding artists of film and light, the word "female" also intrudes upon the list.
Holocaust survivors, April, 1945, Margaret Bourke-White
Unlike journalism, photo-journalism is often
the first and final draft of history.
Margaret Bourke-White was the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry, the first female war correspondent, the first woman permitted to work in combat zones, and the first female photographer for Henry Luce's Life magazine. There are many other firsts, but you get the idea. Along with Dorothea Lange and two or three others, these women nudged aside their male counterparts at a time when such nudging seldom happened, and was looked down upon when it did. Bourke-White was among the first war correspondents (of either gender) allowed to photograph survivors of the Jewish Holocaust when concentration camps such as Buchenwald were liberated. Doing so took a strong stomach. Some of her male colleagues lost the contents of theirs. Her stark, black and white photos could only be termed horrific. As devastating as the hundreds of emaciated, near-naked human bodies of the living might be, her employer, Life magazine, drew the line at publishing similar images she sent them of truckloads of dead bodies on their way to mass graves.

History too horribly vivid for the pages of Life--one (of several, actually) for the archives.
Margaret White was born in the Bronx in 1904, her father a non-practicing Jew, her mother, Minnie Bourke, an Irish-Catholic homemaker. Her brother referred to their parents as "free thinkers." In college, Margaret first studied herpetology (frogs, lizards, and snakes) before switching to her school girl hobby, photography. After attending several colleges across the country following the death of her father, she eventually graduated from Cornell in 1927. After a brief, two-year marriage and divorce, Margaret White added her mother's maiden name, hyphenating it to Bourke-White.

Bourke-White's Fort Peck Dam, its near-abstraction of form as iconic of American resilience and strength during hard times as any photo ever taken--November 23, 1936.
In 1929, after a stint as a commercial photographer in upstate New York, Bourke-White took a position as associate editor for Fortune magazine, which led to the opportunity to shoot photos of Soviet industry--a first for a woman at the time. That led to her being brought on board the newly formed Life magazine staff by Henry Luce, its owner and founder, followed by her first ever magazine cover (Life's first ever magazine cover as well). During the following years, while Dorothea Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration documenting the Depression, Bourke-White did much the same for Life. The difference was, Lange's work was seen by a few thousand at the time. Bourke-White's vividly brought home the Depression to a few million (top).

The nineteenth-century meets the twentieth--Bourke-White captures
New York's Lower East Side invaded by the Manhattan Bridge.
Joseph Stalin, smiling--maybe because
the photographer was quite pretty?
Aside from her obvious talent as a photo-journalist, Margaret Bourke-White had a talent for being in the right place at the right time. Of course, being Life's only female news photographer didn't hurt. As Europe was preparing for war, Luce sent her to Nazi Germany and to Stalin's Soviet Union to capture his worst premonitions of war. Though sometimes shooting photos of world leaders, Bourke-White was not known for her portraits. She was, however, able to make Joseph Stalin smile for his. During the war itself, Bourke-White was torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of Chesapeake Bay when her chopper crashed. At Life, she was known as 'Maggie the Indestructible." As Germany collapsed during the final months of the war, "Maggie" attached herself to the colorful George S. Patton as he went about Germany liberating concentration camps. Her horrifying photos of Buchenwald have lingered as her most famous images.

Bourke-White went to Japan after the war to record
that country's amazing industrial recovery.
In the years following the war, human suffering went on; Europe and Japan rebuilt; India gained independence; Bourke-White published a book (Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly); and in 1953, began to show the first symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. Ten years (and several medical procedures) later, she published a best-selling biography, Portrait of Myself. Margaret Bourke-White died in 1971, not only a victim of Parkinson's, but of inattentive care and financial hardship resulting from her medical bills coupled with her own personal generosity. She was sixty-seven.

Looking up Lady Liberty's skirt.
If a man had taken such a shot, he'd probably have been fired.


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