Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971) was an American photographer and documentary photographer. She is best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry under the Soviet’s five-year plan, the first American female war photojournalist, and having one of her photographs (the construction of Fort Peck Dam) on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine. She died of Parkinson’s disease about eighteen years after developing symptoms.
Margaret Bourke-White, born Margaret White in the Bronx, New York, was the daughter of Joseph White, a non-practicing Jew whose father came from Poland, and Minnie Bourke, who was of Irish Catholic descent. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey (in a neighborhood now part of Middlesex), and graduated from Plainfield High School in Union County. From her naturalist father, an engineer and inventor, she claimed to have learned perfectionism; from her “resourceful homemaker” mother, she claimed to have developed an unapologetic desire for self-improvement.” Her younger brother, Roger Bourke White, became a prominent Cleveland businessman and high-tech industry founder, and her older sister, Ruth White, became well known for her work at the American Bar Association in Chicago, Ill. Roger Bourke White described their parents as “Free thinkers who were intensely interested in advancing themselves and humanity through personal achievement,” attributing this quality in part to the success of their children. He was not surprised at his sister Margaret’s success, saying “[she] was not unfriendly or aloof”.
Margaret’s interest in photography began as a hobby in her youth, supported by her father’s enthusiasm for cameras. Despite her interest, in 1922, she began studying herpetology at Columbia University, only to have her interest in photography strengthened after studying under Clarence White (no relation). She left after one semester, following the death of her father. She transferred colleges several times, attending the University of Michigan (where she became a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority), Purdue University in Indiana, and Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Bourke-White ultimately graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927, leaving behind a photographic study of the rural campus for the school’s newspaper, including photographs of her famed dormitory, Risley Hall. A year later, she moved from Ithaca, New York, to Cleveland, Ohio, where she started a commercial photography studio and began concentrating on architectural and industrial photography.
In 1924, during her studies, she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced two years later. Margaret White added her mother’s surname, “Bourke” to her name in 1927 and hyphenated it.
In 1929, Bourke-White accepted a job as associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine, a position she held until 1935. In 1930, she became the first Western photographer allowed to take photographs of Soviet industry.
She was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936. She held the title of staff photographer until 1940, but returned from 1941 to 1942, and again in 1945, after which she stayed through her semi-retirement in 1957 (which ended her photography for the magazine) and her full retirement in 1969.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such a favorite that it was the 1930s’ representative in the United States Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps. “Although Bourke-White titled the photo, New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam, it is actually a photo of the spillway located three miles east of the dam,” according to a United States Army Corps of Engineers web page.
During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange, photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. In the February 15, 1937 issue of Life magazine, her famous photograph of black flood victims standing in front of a sign which declared, “World’s Highest Standard of Living”, showing a white family, was published. The photograph later would become the basis for the artwork of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today.
Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were married from 1939 to their divorce in 1942, and collaborated on You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a book about conditions in the South during the Great Depression.
She also traveled to Europe to record how Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were faring under Nazism and how Russia was faring under Communism. While in Russia, she photographed a rare occurrence, Joseph Stalin with a smile, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt when visiting Georgia.
LAST YEAR AND DEATH
In 1953, Bourke-White developed her first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She was forced to slow her career to fight encroaching paralysis. In 1959 and 1961, she underwent several operations to treat her condition, which effectively ended her tremors but affected her speech. In 1971, she died at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, aged 67, from Parkinson’s disease.
Bourke-White wrote an autobiography, Portrait of Myself, which was published in 1963 and became a bestseller, but 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 time”, no longer covered her health-care costs. She also suffered financially from her personal generosity and “less-than-responsible attendant care.”
- honorary Doctorate: Rutgers University, 1948
- honorary Doctorate: University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), 1951
- Achievement Award: US Camera, 1963
- Honor Roll Award: American Society of Magazine Photographers, 1964
In 1990, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree in 1992 and again in 1994 by the National Women’s History Project.
- Eyes on Russia (1931)
- You Have Seen Their Faces (1937; with Erskine Caldwell) ISBN 0-8203-1692-X
- North of the Danube (1939; with Erskine Caldwell) ISBN 0-306-70877-9
- Shooting the Russian War (1942)
- They Called it “Purple Heart Valley” (1944)
- Halfway to Freedom; a report on the new India (1949)
- Interview with India,(1950)
- Portrait of Myself. Simon Schuster. (1963). ISBN 0-671-59434-6
- Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (1946)
- The Taste of War (selections from her writings edited by Jonathon Silverman) ISBN 0-7126-1030-8
- Say, Is This the USA? (Republished 1977) ISBN 0-306-77434-8
- The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White ISBN 0-517-16603-8