Name: Margaret Bourke-White; Artform: Photography
“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”
Margaret Bourke-White was a renowned photojournalist from America, whose documentary work was highly popular during the 1930s and 1940s.
Launching her own career as a freelance photographer in the last 1920s, Bourke-White soon gained a reputation as a talented and original architectural and industrial photographer. As her name grew in photography circles, she was soon hired by Fortune Magazine and sent to photograph the Krupp Iron Works in Germany, before continuing her travels to Russia to take photos of the First Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union. This made her the first foreign photographer to document the Soviet Union.
Her ‘firsts’ continued when she was hired by the newly formed Life Magazine in 1936, where her pictures of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam were used on the magazine’s first cover and were part of the first feature story of the same edition. During the 1930s, Bourke-White’s work became more refined and expanded to include people and social issues. Throughout this decade, the pioneering photographer created photo-essays of life in the Soviet Union, Germany and the American Midwest ‘Dust Bowl’, which helped to develop a humanitarian-style approach to her work
‘Kentucky Flood’, February 1937
During World War II, Bourke-White worked directly with the US military to cover the war for Life Magazine. Surviving the torpedoing and sinking of the ship she was travelling on, she covered the siege of Moscow, before joining General George Patton’s Third Army troops towards the end of the war, and crossing into Germany. Her photographs of the concentration camps and the gas chambers shocked audiences in America and the rest of the world.
One of Bourke-White’s most famous photographs is of Mohandas Ghandi, sitting on the floor in his home next to a spinning wheel. Speaking about the encounter, Bourke-White said,
“I was grateful that he would not speak to me, for I could see it would take all the attention I had to overcome the halation from the wretched window just over his head. He started to spin, beautifully, rhythmically and with a fine nimble hand. I set off the first of three flashbulbs. It was quite plain from the span of time from the click of the shutter to flash of the bulb that my equipment was not synchronizing properly. The heat and moisture of India had affected all my equipment; nothing seemed to work. I decided to hoard my two remaining flashbulbs, and take a few time exposures. But this I had to abandon when my tripod “froze” with one leg at its minimum and two at their maximum length. Before risking the second flashbulb, I checked the apparatus with the utmost care. When Gandhi made a most beautiful movement as he drew the thread, I pushed the trigger and was reassured by the sound that everything had worked properly. Then I noticed that I had forgotten to pull the slide. I hazarded the third peanut flash, and it worked. I threw my arms around the rebellious equipment and stumbled out into daylight.”
Margaret Bourke-White is remembered as a pioneering photographer, whose independence, originality, and sensitivity regarding her subjects has ensured her work’s enduring appeal. Travelling across continents to pursue her career in a time when many women were denied the right to work is just one of the trailblazing aspects of Bourke-White’s story. Her talent and determination have helped to shape her lasting legacy, and there is no doubt that her artwork and her story will continue to inspire many people for generations to come.