Bourke-White, Margaret

American (1904-1971)

Margaret Bourke-White’s life reads like an adventure novel. After growing up in the Bronx and New Jersey with a Jewish father and Protestant mother, she graduated with a photography degree from Cornell University in 1927 and never looked back. Her fearlessness took her in many directions. In 1928, she opened her own commercial studio, specializing in industrial photography. Though her clients at Otis Steel worried that a woman couldn’t handle the intense factory environment, Bourke-White navigated surly men and poor lighting conditions to obtain shots that garnered national attention. During the 1930s, she was a pioneer in the world of photojournalism, as the first Western photographer allowed in the Soviet Union and the first woman photographer for both Fortune and Life magazines; her capture of the Fort Peck Dam graced Life’s first cover in 1936. As World War II began, it seemed natural that Bourke-White should be the first female war correspondent and the first woman allowed in combat zones.  

Bourke-White’s courage was also displayed in her choice of subject matter; it seems her camera never turned away from pain and brutality. Be it 1930 victims of the Dust Bowl, concentration camp prisoners from Buchenwald, streets in India littered with corpses after the country was partitioned, or section of Moscow bombed out by the Nazis, Bourke-White never flinched. In her words, “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.” This barrier carried Bourke-White through being torpedoed in the Mediterranean, stranded on an Arctic island, pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed and – finally – through being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 50. She lived out her final years in Connecticut, penning her autobiography, and then passing away at age 67.