It’s the birthday of photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York (1904). She was born on her parents’ anniversary. Her mother, Minnie, homeschooled the kids and tried to teach them courage as well as academics. Maggie, as they called her, took these lessons to heart, and always made it a point to challenge herself. Her dad was an amateur photographer, and as a kid she would accompany him on photo excursions and help him in the darkroom. He was an engineer and an inventor of printing presses — and a perfectionist, a trait she picked up from him. When she was eight, he took her to watch one of the presses being made, and she was fascinated by the big factory and the molten iron. But she never took any pictures herself until she was in college. She went to a number of different schools, studying zoology and paleontology, and made a little money on the side by selling photos she’d taken of famous buildings on the Cornell campus. When she graduated, she moved to Cleveland and started her own photography studio.
She began her career shooting industrial and architectural photos, and her style was fresh and original. Bourke-White was fearless, climbing out onto the gargoyles atop the Chrysler Building or hanging out of a helicopter for just the right shot. At that time, women weren’t allowed inside the mills and factories that she was keen to photograph, so she had to fight for the opportunity, and once inside, she was dauntless in her work. Even when she was just starting out, taking pictures at the Otis Steel Company, she got so close to the molten metal that she blistered the finish on her camera and turned her face red like it was sunburned. She caught the eye of publisher Henry Luce in 1929, when he read a headline in the New York Sun: “Dizzy heights have no terror for this girl photographer, who braves numerous perils to film the beauty of iron and steel.” So he hired her to be the first staff photographer for his new magazine, Fortune.
In 1930, Bourke-White became the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. She photographed Soviet workers and the industrialization that was part of the “first five-year plan.” She compiled the pictures into a book, Eyes of Russia (1931). She returned from her trip with less interest in industrial subjects and more interest in the workers. “It seems to me that while it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks or a row of dynamos, it is becoming more and more important to reflect that life that goes on behind these photographs,” she wrote in 1935. That’s the year she met the Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell, and they eventually married. They collaborated on a number of books, including You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), about the American South during the Depression.
It was her photograph of Fort Peck Dam that appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936, and she is also credited with developing the “photo essay” features that made the magazine famous. She produced features on Germany, the Dust Bowl, and World War II — she even survived the sinking of her transport ship in the Atlantic after it was torpedoed. She was the first woman accredited to photograph the American armed forces, and the first woman allowed to fly along on a U.S. combat mission. She photographed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel, and the violent partition of India and Pakistan. The Life staff referred to her as “Maggie the Indestructible.”
In 1953, she began to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She went into semi-retirement in 1957, retired fully in 1969, and died in 1971.