Photographer, journalist, writer, and social activist, Margaret Bourke-White was a woman of many firsts: first female photographer for Life magazine, first female war correspondent, first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. The tough-minded and talented Bourke-White was driven by more than mere ambition. She had a deep-rooted belief in an artist’s duty to change the world. Known to her Life colleagues as “Maggie the Indestructible,” Bourke-White documented some of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century.
Margaret was born June 14, 1904 in Bronx, New York. Her parents, Joseph White and Minnie Bourke, were children of immigrants and they firmly believed in personal and social progress. She became interested in photography as a child, and was encouraged by her father who introduced her to the world of machines, often taking her inside a foundry to watch the manufacture of the presses. Margaret graduated from Plainfield High School in Union County, New Jersey and attended Columbia University in 1921 when she was 17. She began studying herpetology but on January of 1922, her father suffered a massive stoke and died. Margaret returned to school soon after her father’s death and signed up for a photography course with Clarence H. White, a brilliant teacher and one of the finest photographers of the group known as the Photo-Secession, but would have been unable to afford her second year of college without the aid of two benefactors. A Mr. Munger and his sister announced that they would support her through college for at least one year—they considered her “an investment”. She ended up at the University of Michigan with the intent to study herpetology, but also signed on to the student yearbook as a photographer, where her work was so striking that the yearbook published a sheaf of her photographs. By this time, Margaret knew she wanted to be a photographer. In 1923, she told her professor “I should like to be a news photographer-reporter and a good one.” Margaret eventually graduated from Cornell University in 1927 with a B.A. in biology before moving to Cleveland to begin developing her skills as a photographer.
She worked as a freelance professional in Cleveland, and a big break came when she landed a job with two young architects who needed photographs of a school they had just built. Architecture magazine had offered to feature them, but they needed someone who could show off their structure. Her photographs brought her success and she opened a commercial photography studio with a concentration on architectural and industrial photography. She began changing her style from soft-focus pictures to realistic ones that were crisp and sharp. Deep blacks and brilliant whites replaced soft shades of grey. She also combined her own last name with her mother’s maiden name (Bourke) to create her hyphenated professional name.
In 1929, Time magazine editor Henry Luce offered her a position as the first photographer for his new Fortune magazine. While at Fortune, Bourke-White documented the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and also traveled to the Soviet Union where she was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry. Between Fortune and the Soviet Union, Margaret Bourke-White became one of the best known photographers in the United States. In 1934 Fortune dispatched her to the Midwest to cover the terrible conditions of the Drought, where the suffering of the farmers and their families moved her deeply. In 1936, Luce tapped her for the new Life magazine, where she was the only female photographer. One of her photographs graced the cover of Life’s debut issue, and her relationship with the magazine would last throughout the rest of her career.
When peace negotiations failed and WWII broke out, Life sent Margaret to Europe. Wilson Hicks, Life’s picture editor, wanted Margaret to be in Russia in case Germany invaded. She took five cameras, twenty-two lenses, four portable developing tanks, three thousand peanut flashbulbs, and twenty-eight detective novels, adding up to 600 pounds of luggage. She was the only foreign photographer in Moscow when the first German bombs fell on July 19, 1941. For 22 nights she risked her life taking photographs during the air raids and scooped all other publications. When the United States entered the war in December, 1941, Margaret asked for another overseas assignment. Her editors arranged to have her accredited to the US Army Air Force and the first uniform for a woman war correspondent was designed for her. In March of 1945 she traveled throughout a collapsing Germany with General George S. Patton. She was there when he arrived at Buchenwald, just two hours after the Nazis fled. Her powerful image, The Living Dead of Buchenwald, has become one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century. Her photographs of the emaciated inmates of concentration camps stunned the world. When people asked her how she could bear to photograph such things, she said, “I have to work with a veil over my mind. I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw prints of my own photographs.”
In 1946, after World War II, she traveled to India and became well known for her photographs of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, father of the modern Buddhist Movement, and India’s leader, Mahatma Gandhi, at the spinning wheel. Margaret was also one of the most effective chroniclers of the violence that erupted at the partition of India and Pakistan. She recorded the mass migration caused by the division of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Her photographs of the 10 million people who fled for their lives were gut-wrenching. Sixty-six of Bourke-White’s photographs of the partition violence were included in a 2006 reissue of Singh’s 1956 novel about the disruption, Train to Pakistan. On Margaret’s last day in India, she arranged an interview with Gandhi. A few hours later, on his way to evening prayer, he was assassinated. When Life ran the story about Gandhi’s murder, the editors reprinted the picture of Gandhi at his spinning wheel. Margaret said “Nothing in all my life has affected me more deeply and the memory will never leave me.”
After her time in India, Margaret travelled to South Africa to study radial conflict and life under apartheid, and from there she traveled to Korea. While reporting on the Korean War, Margaret noticed a dull ache in her left leg and then in her left arm. When she returned to the states she consulted a neurologist and learned that she had Parkinson’s disease, an incurable ailment. She was only 49 years old, at the height of her career, so she kept her sickness a secret for fear that she wouldn’t be given any more assignments. She retired from Life magazine in 1969 to her beloved home in Darien, CT where she was surrounded by mementoes of her travels from all over the world. In the summer of 1971 she fell and was taken to the Stamford hospital where she died on August 27th.
Margaret Bourke-White’s career has had an amazing impact on our Century. She changed the face of photography, dramatically altering the influence of photojournalism by using a new technique, the photographic essay. Not only did she document many of the most significant events of the 20th century, she also put a human face to the tragedies and the injustices of the powerful. She showed that photographers could be brave, could influence public opinion, and could be strong women.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.