LIFE was an American magazine published weekly from 1936 to 1972. It arrived at my house on Wednesdays and I was anxious to get to the mailbox when I got home from school. LIFE was noted for the quality of its photography. It was the very first all-photographic American news magazine, and it dominated the market for decades. The magazine sold more than 13.5 million copies a week at its zenith. Possibly the most famous photograph published in the magazine was Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s shot of a nurse in a sailor’s arms, V-J Day In Times Square, taken on August 14, 1945, as they celebrated the American victory over Japan. LIFE magazine’s role in the history of photojournalism is a very important contribution to publishing.
I have appreciation and affection for accomplished women, especially women working in what was considered a man’s profession against all odds. Margaret Bourke‐White (1904 – 1971) was on the staff of LIFE magazine since its founding in 1936 until 1970. Her photograph of Fort Peck Dam in Montana was on the cover of the magazine’s edition.
Eisenstaedt, a longtime friend, said of Bourke‐White:
“She was great because there was no assignment, no picture, that was unimportant to her. She immersed herself in the smallest detail and everything she did was a challenge to her.“
One of the first photojournalists who told a news story in pictures and wrote the text, Bourke‐White summed up the secret of her work saying:
“The camera is a remarkable instrument. Saturate yourself with your subject and the camera will all but take you by the hand.“
Her camera took her through a life of high adventure, including wars, dust bowls, riots, death camps and floods. She was torpedoed off North Africa in World War II and ambushed in Korea. She flew on American bombing raids in Tunis and rode with an artillery spotter in Italy.
Aggressive and relentless in pursuit of pictures, Bourke‐White had the knack of being at the right place at the right time. She interviewed and photographed Mahatma Gandhi just hours before his assassination in India. She was the only American photographer in the Soviet Union in 1941 during the battle for Moscow.
Many of the world’s most famous figures sat for her: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill (who gave her just 12 minutes), Emperor Haile Selassie, Pope Pius XI and Joseph Stalin.
For her meeting with Stalin in the Kremlin in 1941, Bourke‐White used a plan to catch him off guard. Recalling the incident, she wrote:
“I made up my mind that I wouldn’t leave without getting a picture of Stalin smiling. When I met him, his face looked as though it were carved out of stone, he wouldn’t show any emotion at all. I went virtually berserk trying to make that great stone face come alive.
I got down on my hands and knees on the floor and tried out all kinds of crazy postures searching for a good camera angle. Stalin looked down at the way I was squirming and writhing and for the space of a lightning flash he smiled—and I got my picture. Probably, he had never seen a girl photographer before and my weird contortions amused him.“
Bourke‐White maintained that a woman shouldn’t trade on the fact that she was a woman. Nonetheless, her male colleagues were certain that her fetching looks, she was tall, slim, dark blond-haired and beautiful, were often used to her advantage. Generals rushed to tote her cameras and equipment, even Stalin insisted on carrying her bags.
Bourke-White said of her work:
“I feel that utter truth is essential and to get that truth may take a lot of searching and long hours.“
In practice, her attitude resulted in pictures of starkness and simplicity, but that were infused with a sense of humanity.
Bourke‐White became photographer out of necessity. Born in New York City. her father was a naturalist and inventor. She attended six colleges, finally winding up at Cornell. After her father died and after being married at 19-years-old, a marriage that fell apart, Bourke‐White was obliged to support herself.
She began taking pictures with a second‐hand, $20 Ica Reflex that had a crack through the lens. Her first painfully taken photographs, of Cornell’s spectacular Ithaca NY campus, sold well enough to encourage her to become a professional. She made her first reputation in Cleveland as an architectural and industrial photographer.
From 1927 to 1930, Bourke‐White made machinery beautiful, reimagining the American factory into a Gothic cathedral and glorifying the gears. Her pictures caught the eye of Henry Luce (1898 – 1967), the American magazine magnate who was known “the most influential private citizen in the America of his day”. He launched and closely supervised a stable of magazines that transformed the industry. Luce invited her to join the staff of his Fortune magazine.
For Fortune, she took photographs of a shoe‐manufacturing plant in Massachusetts; a glass blowing plant in Corning, NY, and stockyards in Chicago. She traveled to the Soviet Union, taking pictures of factory workers, and the Dneiper Dam. With the photographs left over from her magazine assignment, she published a book of photos, Eyes Of Russia, a record of the USSR “Five Year Plan” for the development of the national economy of the Soviet Union.
Back in the USA, she did a picture article in 1934 for Fortune of the dust bowl, the name given to the drought-stricken middle of the country, which suffered severe dust storms in the 1930s. As high winds and choking dust swept the land from Texas to Nebraska, people and livestock were killed and crops failed across the entire region. Bourke‐White traveled from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle for shots of the drought and its victims.
Two years later, Bourke‐White and the controversial writer Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre) toured the rural South, photographing sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The result, You Have Seen Their Faces, angered mill‐owners and landlords, who charged that Bourke‐White and Caldwell had gone out of their way to portray gaunt cotton pickers and wan children. Her photographs captured the tragedy and desolation of rural America in the 1930s. The cracked and parched earth seemed one with the lined and weathered faces of the Great Depression’s victims. The book is a classic of photographic realism.
For LIFE she did photo‐essays on the Arctic, on Central Europe and on the variety of life in America. In the spring of 1942, with the USA in the war, Bourke‐White returned to New York City to join the Army Air Forces as a photographer, the first woman to be signed. She covered the fighting in North Africa and Italy, sending LIFE some of its most memorable war pictures.
One of her most awesome series of pictures was taken in 1945 when she went through Buchenwald, the first and the largest of the concentration camps within Nazi Germany’s 1937 borders. Her photos of stacks of naked dead bodies stirred the world with revulsion.
After the war, LIFE sent Bourke‐White to India, where she photographed fighting between Muslims and Hindus, and one of the most effective chroniclers of the violence that erupted at the independence and partition of India and Pakistan. She recorded streets littered with corpses, dead victims with open eyes, and refugees with vacant eyes. The photographs were taken just two years after those Bourke-White took of the newly captured Buchenwald. In 1949 and 1950 she went to South Africa to study labor conditions and race relations. She photographed diamond and gold mines, where she was lowered 2,000 feet in a basket to take pictures of a gold mine while underground rain poured around her.
When the Korean conflict broke out, she went to the front with American troops. According to her bestselling memoir, Portrait Of Myself (1963), it was on her way back home in 1952 that she noticed a dull ache in her left leg and arm, the first symptoms of Parkinson’s. The disease went undiagnosed for several years, until finally, in 1958, her condition was diagnosed, and she underwent the first of two surgeries for the relief of her tremors and her awkward way of walking. She grew increasingly infirm and isolated in her home in Darien, Connecticut. In her living room, there was wallpapered in one huge, floor-to-ceiling, perfectly-stitched-together black-and-white photograph of an evergreen forest that she had shot in Czechoslovakia in 1938. A pension plan set up in the 1950s, though generous for that era, could not cover her health-care costs. She also suffered financially from her personal generosity.
Her story is recounted in a made-for-television movie, The Margaret Bourke-White Story (1960) starring Eli Wallach as Eisenstaedt and Teresa Wright as Bourke-White. She is also portrayed by Farrah Fawcett in the television movie, Double Exposure: The Story Of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) and by Candice Bergen in the 1982 Academy Award-winning film Gandhi.
Bourke‐White’s pictures are in museums all over our pretty planet, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A large representation of her work resides in the collection of the Library of Congress.