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Margaret Bourke-White/Biography

From George Eastman House : Notes On Photographs

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Margaret Bourke-White
Key Attributes :   Technique · Significant Marks · Conservation · Subject Series
General Information :   Biography · Provenance and Significant Collections · References and Bibliography




Born Margaret Bourke White on 14 June, 1904, in the Bronx to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White. One older sister, Ruth and one younger brother, Roger. Intense parents who did not allow comic books or gum chewing. They believed in reading and improving the mind. Her father introduced her to foundry factories and she loved them. She raised caterpillars into butterflies; the whole family would watch for them to emerge from their chrysalis. Had hamsters, rabbits, turtles, and garter snakes. She wanted to be a biologist and to “…go to the jungle and do all the things women never did before" (Bourke-White 1963).

1921 - Enrolled at Columbia University and used her knowledge of photography to take touristy shots and sold them for school money. Margaret’s mother bought her her first camera, a secondhand 3¼ x 4¼ Ica Reflex with a cracked lens. The cracked lens came in handy while she was in the Clarence White Pictorialism school. She took her first pictures on old-fashioned glass plates.

1924 - Went to the University of Michigan to study with Dr. Alexander G. Ruthven. Decided not to become a herpetologist, but the Doctor was a mentor and friend and helped her in her career.

While there she met and married Everett "Chappie" Chapmann. They moved to Purdue University where Chappie taught and Margaret took courses. But he was moody and quiet and Margaret wanted an independent career. They moved to Cleveland and she taught classes for children at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and went to night school at Case Western Reserve University. Chappie’s mother was a clingy woman who hounded Margaret and by 1928, Margaret and Chappie divorced. At that point, she changed her name back to White, then hyphenated her middle name, her mother’s maiden name, and her last to Bourke-White.

File:Permission Cornell Campus.jpg
"A.D. White Statue on the Arts Quad" (1926), GEH 1971:0155:0065

1926 - Went to Cornell University for her senior year. She chose Cornell “…not for its excellent zoology courses, but because I read there were waterfalls on campus” (Bourke-White 1963). She made and sold beautiful, dreamy pictures of the campus. Applied for a job as Curator of Herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but realized she could be a professional photographer.

1927 – Went to Cleveland. By the end of 1927 she abandoned Pictorialism for Straight Photography. So her Pictorialist work is of Cornell and Cleveland. In the 1930s she became one of the world’s preeminent photographers, even recognized by Stieglitz.

File:Permission 200-ton ladel.jpg
"200-ton Ladel" (1928), GEH 1971:0155:0122

Bourke-White's image of the 200-ton ladle, titled “Romance of Steel”, won first prize at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual exhibit of work done by Cleveland artists. These photographs prompted Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, to fly her to NY to ask her to help him start Fortune magazine. She was the first and only photographer for one year after the magazine was started. She published the first photo-essay on a pig rendering plant.

1930s - She was sent to Germany by Fortune and was let into Russia because of her industrial work. They liked her photographs so much she was made a guest of the Soviet government. In this trip the people behind the machines became more important than the machinery itself. She published Eyes on Russia in 1931.

1937 - Collaborated with Erskine Caldwell on You Have Seen Their Faces, depicting the depression. (Married to Caldwell for 4 years.)

1940s – War photographer with Life (1941). Went to Russia and was let in to photograph based on her past work. Was there in June, 1941, when Germany invaded Moscow. Shot bombings from her hotel room. The US presidential envoy arrived for foreign aid discussions and secured Bourke-White with a photo shoot with Stalin and got her film out of Russia and to Life. Returned to the war zone after Pearl Harbor and became the first woman to be accredited by the US armed forces as a photographer – then as the first woman authorized to fly on a combat mission. Went to England and North Africa, Germany and Italy. Was willing to go anywhere in the fray to get the shots.

1945 – Was with Patton in a collapsing Germany. Photographed Büchenwald – “Using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me” (Bourke-White 1963). After the war she still wanted challenge. Photographed the Partition of India. Made “transcendental images” during this time. Photographed Gandhi.

1950 – South Africa. New conservative government and apartheid. Photographed the gold and diamond mines. Terrible conditions. Would find pilots to take her up for aerial views. She loved to fly.

1952- Went to photograph the US fight against communism in Korea to clear her name in the McCarthy era. Was a little late in getting there-–the Armistice had been signed. Photographed the Guerrilla war between South Korea and communist sympathizers below the Demilitarized Zone. She began to experience lameness in her limbs and stiffness in her fingers around this time. She hid it well, but 1957 she took her last assignment for Life. She had Parkinson’s disease.

Margaret Bourke-White died in Connecticut on August 27, 1971 at the age of 67.