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Margaret Bourke-White

Trail-blazing female photographer Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York City to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White on June 14, 1904. One of three children, she was raised in New Jersey where her engineer father worked and inherited her parents' infinite curiosity and love of nature. However, it was Joseph White who was the photographer in the family, while his young daughter focused her attention on reptiles. Her intention was to become a biologist, and she entered Columbia University in 1923. Sadly, however, her beloved father died of a cerebral hemorrhage during her first semester, which is when she adopted his hobby of photography as her own. After studying with acclaimed pictorial photographer Clarence White, Miss White began approaching photography as an art, taking soft-focus rather than documentary style photographs. Despite the financial hardships that resulted from her husband’s sudden passing, Minnie White nevertheless purchased a second-hand Ica Reflex camera for her daughter for $20. Despite its cracked lens, she used this camera exclusively for the next six years.

Enrolling in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to study herpetology, Miss White met and married classmate Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced two years' later. After her divorce, she transferred to Cornell University, where she drifted away from soft-focus photography and began experimenting with photographing buildings in a way that made them look like paintings. In 1927, she moved to Cleveland where her award-winning photographs of local factories and steel mills were featured in The Story of Steel. Two years' later, Henry Booth Luce hired Miss White as a photographer for Fortune magazine, for which she photographed the industrial progress of Germany and Russia. Her evolving style changed again after a chance encounter with Tobacco Road author Erskine Caldwell. She joined him on a journey across the American South, photographing the plight of sharecroppers for the 1937 book, You Have Seen Their Faces. This inspired the trend toward documentary style photography that was popular during the Great Depression.

During this time, she became one of first four photographers for Life magazine. Her sharp-focus pictorial submissions with accompanying byline won Miss Bourke-White, who was now known as Margaret Bourke-White, to acknowledge both parents international fame. She experimented with lighting, but not with 35-mm cameras because she felt they compromised the detail she sought. After a three-year marriage and professional collaboration with Erskine Caldwell, Miss Bourke-White set out to photograph World War II for Life. The first female war correspondent, assigned the rank of lieutenant, she had unprecedented access to the military and to leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In her quest for photographic excellence, she was often in harm’s way, and just barely survived the torpedoing of her aircraft. As the war neared its end, she road across Germany with the army of General George Patton.

After the war, Miss Bourke-White covered the civil strife in India for Life and took the last photograph of the revolt’s nonviolent leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi, just hours before his assassination in 1948. In the summer of 1953, she began experiencing the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, which would force her into retirement. She died from complications due to Parkinson’s disease on August 27, 1971 at the age of 67. She once observed, "You are responsible for what you have done and the people whom you have influenced. In the end, it is only the work that counts." Photographic historians have concluded, Margaret Bourke-White’s work counted.



Ref.:
1996 Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer's Life (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Company), pp. 6, 83.

2000 Women Explorers of the World (Mankato, MN: Capstone Press), pp. 37-38.

1996 Women in Communication: A Biographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 20-29.


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