Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)
Born in New York City in 1904, Margaret studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography from 1921 – 1922. After graduating from college in 1927, she opened a studio in Cleveland.
The industrial photography she specialised in earned her a 1930 feature in Fortune magazine, on the industry of the Great Lakes, and she travelled to the USSR as the first foreign photographer to document Soviet industry.
At the Time of the Louisville Flood” taken by Margaret Bourke-White in Louisville, Kentucky after the Ohio River flood of 1937. It first appeared in Life Magazine’s February 1937 issue.
Her feature on the Dust Bowl in 1934 led to the publication of ‘You Have Seen Their Faces’ (1937), documenting the human aspects of the Depression with text by Erskine Caldwell.
In the autumn of 1936, she joined the new LIFE Magazine as a staff photographer, one of the first four photographers hired, and her photograph ‘Fort Peck Dam’ graced the first cover.
Over the next several years and throughout World War II, she produced a number of photo essays on the turmoil in Europe. She was the only Western photographer to witness the German invasion of Moscow in 1941; the first woman to accompany bombing missions in 1942, photographing the ruins of Dresden from above (1945); and she travelled with Patton’s army through Germany as it liberated concentration camps like Buchenwald and revealed Nazi atrocities (published 1960).
During the next twelve years, she photographed Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence, the unrest in apartheid South Africa, and the battlefields of the Korean War. Her iconic 1946 photo of Gandhi through his spinning wheel became the defining image of the pacifist leader.
Her career was sadly cut short after she developed Parkinson’s disease in 1953. She made her last photo essay for Life, “Megalopolis”, in 1957.
Her work has become the benchmark of contemporary photojournalism with its ability to convey the grandeur of innovation and the pathos of war.
An exhibition dedicated to the early women LIFE magazine photographers, including Margaret, was held at the New York Historical Society in October 2019.
By Paula Vellet