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Margaret Bourke-White

photographer, photojournalist, war correspondent

By

Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White posing with equipment she used for a mural at Radio City Music Hall, New York City.

Getty Images / Hulton Archive
Margaret Bourke-White - Women Making Flags

Women making flags at a factory in Brooklyn, New York July 24, 1940.

Getty Images / Margaret Bourke-White

About Margaret Bourke-White

Dates: June 14, 1904 - August 27, 1971

Occupation: photographer, photojournalist

Known for: first woman war photographer, first woman photographer allowed to accompany a combat mission; iconic images of the Depression, World War II, Buchenwald concentration camp survivors, Gandhi at his spinning wheel

Also known as: Margaret Bourke White, Margaret White

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Minne Elizabeth Bourke White, of English and Irish Protestant heritage
  • Father: Joseph White, industrial engineer and inventor, of Polish Jewish heritage, raised as an Orthodox Jew
  • Siblings: two

Education:

  • public school in New Jersey
  • Plainfield High School, Union County, New Jersey, graduated
  • 1921-22: Columbia University, majored in biology, took first class in photography
  • 1922-23: University of Michigan
  • 1924: Purdue University
  • 1925: (Case) Western Reserve University, Clevelend
  • 1926-27: Cornell University, A.B. biology
  • 1948: Rutgers, Litt. D.
  • 1951: DFA, University of Michigan

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Everett Chapman (married June 13, 1924, divorced 1926; electrical engineering student)
  • husband: Erskine Caldwell (married February 27, 1939, divorced 1942; writer)
  • children: none

More About Margaret Bourke-White:

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. Her parents were members of the Ethical Culture Society in New York, and had been married by its founding leader, Felix Adler. This religious affiliation suited the couple, with their mixed religious background and somewhat unconventional ideas, including full support for the education of women.

College and First Marriage

Margaret Bourke-White began her university education at Columbia University in 1921, as a biology major, but became fascinated with photography while taking a course at Columbia. She transferred to the Univeresity of Michigan after her father died. There she met an engineering student, Everett Chapman, and they were married. The next year she accompanied him to Purdue University.

The marriage quickly broke up, and Margaret Bourke-White moved to Cleveland where her mother was living, and attended Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1925. The following year, she went to Cornell, where she graduated in 1927 with an A.B. in biology.

Early Career

Though majoring in biology, Margaret Bourke-White continued to pursue photography through her college years. Photographs helped to pay for her college costs and, at Cornell, a series of her photographs of the campus was published in the alumni newspaper.

After college, Margaret Bourke-White moved back to Cleveland and pursued a freelance photography career. She added her mother's maiden name, Bourke, and a hyphen to her birth name, Margaret White, adopting Margaret Bourke-White as her professional name.

Her photographs of mostly industrial and architectural subjects, including a series of photographs of Ohio's steel mills at night, drew attention to Margaret Bourke-White's work. In 1929, Margaret Bourke-White was hired by Henry Luce as the first photographer for his new magazine, Fortune.

Margaret Bourke-White traveled to Germany in 1930 and photographed the Krupp Iron Works for Fortune. She then traveled on her own to Russia. Over five weeks, she took thousands of photos of projects and workers, documenting the Soviet Union's first Five Year Plan for industrialization.

Bourke-White returned to Russia in 1931, at the invitation of the Soviet government, and took more photographs, concentrating this time on the Russian people. This resulted in her 1931 book of photographs, Eyes on Russia. She continued to publish photographs of American architecture, as well, including a famous image of the Chrysler Building in New York City.

In 1934, she produced a photo essay on Dust Bowl farmers, marking a transition to more focus on human interest photographs. She published not only in Fortune, but in Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine.

Life Photographer

Henry Luce hired Margaret Bourke-White in 1936 for another new magazine, Life, which was to be photograph-rich. Margaret Bourke-White was one of four staff photographers for Life, and her photograph of Fort Deck Dam in Montana graced the first cover on November 23, 1936. That year, she was named one of America's ten most outstanding women.

Erskine Caldwell

In 1937, she collaborated with the writer Erskine Caldwell on a book of photographs and essays about southern sharecroppers in the midst of the Depression, You Have Seen Their Faces. The book, though popular, drew criticism for reproducing stereotypes and for misleading captions which "quoted" the subjects of photos with what were actually words of Caldwell and Bourke-White, not the people depicted. Her 1937 photograph of African Americans after the Louisville flood standing in line under a billboard touting the "American way" and the "world's highest standard of living" helped draw attention to racial and class differences.

In 1939, Caldwell and Bourke-White produced another book, North of the Danube, about Czechoslovakia before the Nazi invasion. That same year, the two were married, and moved to a home in Darien, Connecticut.

In 1941, they produced a third book, Say! Is This the U.S.A.. They also traveled to Russia, where they were when Hitler's army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, violating the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression pact. They took refuge in the American embassy. As the only Western photographer present, Bourke-White photographed the siege of Moscow, including German bombardment.

Caldwell and Bourke-White divorced in 1942.

Margaret Bourke-White and World War II

After Russia, Bourke-White traveled to North Africa to cover the war there. Her ship to North Africa was torpedoed and sunk. She also covered the Italian campaign. Margaret Bourke-White was the first woman photographer attached to the United States military.

In 1945, Margaret Bourke-White was attached to General George Patton's Third Army when it crossed the Rhine into Germany, and she was present when Patton's troops entered Buchenwald, where she took photographs documenting the horrors there. Life published many of these, bringing those horrors of the concentration camp to the attention of the American and worldwide public.

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