Jun 042015
Margaret Bourke-White photographing the Sears Tower

Margaret Bourke-White photographing the Sears Tower


Margaret Bourke-White ( June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971) was a woman who made a habit of being the “first” woman to…or the “first” photographer to….

She as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry during the Stalin years.  She was the first female war photographer and journalist and first female photographer for Life Magazine.

Early Life

She was born Margaret White in the Bronx, New York to Joseph White (a non-practicing Jew from Poland) and Minnie Bourke (who was of Irish Catholic descent).  Both parents were not religious but considered themselves as “Free Thinkers” who were interested in advancing themselves and humanity in general.She married  1n 1924, but divorced two years later.

Love of Photography

Margaret’s father was a keen photographer and, at first, Margaret was only interested in photography as a hobby.  In 1927, Margaret graduated from Cornell University with a B.A.  Cornell had allowed her to become a photographer for the university’s newspaper.  A year later, she started a commercial photography studio and began concentrating on architectural and industrial photography.

Obtaining Work as a Woman.

One of Bourke-White’s clients was Otis Steel Company.   They were reluctant because she was a woman and the intense heat and “dirty” conditions were not considered a place for  a woman.    She persisted and was employed.

Technical Problems to Solve

When she finally got permission, technical problems began. Black and white film in that era was sensitive to blue light, not the reds and oranges of hot steel, so she could see the beauty, but the photographs were coming out all black. She solved this problem by bringing along a new style of magnesium flare like a flash light.  Her team used them and the photographs were the best of that era.  She earned national attention.

Fame Comes Her Way

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.  Stalin at the time was pushing his propaganda about the Communist system.

Amazing Photos.

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 (see  that it was the 1930s’ representative in the United States Postal Service‘s Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps

The Great Depression

During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like 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.

Married Life

Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were from 1939 to their divorce in 1942.  They collaborated on the book “You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) revealed the conditions of the Great Depression.

World War II

Margaret was like a cat that is supposed to have “nine lives.”  She was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat war zones.  She photographed German forces invaded Russia.  From Europe, Margaret was attached to the U.S Army/Air Force in North Africa and then to the U.S Army as it advanced through Italy.  She repeatedly came under fire in Italy.

Margaret was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow and pulled out of Chesapeake Bay when her chopper crashed.  She gained the title, “Maggie the Indestructible.”

A Photographer with Personality

Margaret took a photo of Joseph Stalin with a smile, which was unusual for the Russian dictator.  She also photographed Gandhi.

Photographs of Terror

In the spring of 1945, she traveled throughout a collapsing Germany with Gen. George S. Patton. She arrived at Buchenwald the notorious concentration camp” After the war, she produced a book entitled, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, a project that helped her come to grips with the brutality she had witnessed during and after the war.

Parkinson’s Disease

In 1953, Margaret 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 at the age of 67.

Remembering Margaret

Margaret wrote an autobiography, Portrait of Myself, which was published in 1963 and became a bestseller.  She led a life of adventure and defied death on many occasions.  I admire her for that.



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