Margaret BourkeWhite Essay Research Paper Margaret BourkeWhite

Margaret Bourke-White Essay, Research Paper

Margaret Bourke-White was born on June 14th, 1904, in the Bronx, New York. Her

father, Joseph White, was an inventor and engineer, and her mother, Minnie Bourke, was

forward thinking woman, especially for the early 1900’s. When Margaret was very young, the

family moved to a rural suburb in New Jersey, so that Joseph could be closer to his job.

Margaret, along with her sister Ruth, were taught from an early age by their mother. Her

mother was strict in monitoring their outside influences, limiting everything from fried

foods to funny papers. When Margaret was eight, her father took her inside a foundry to

watch the manufacture of printing presses. While in the foundry, she saw some molten iron

poured. This event filled Margaret with joy, and this memory would be burned in her mind for

years to come. Joseph White’s chief recreation activity suited his scientific mind; her was

an amateur photographer. The White’s home was filled with his photographs. If something

interested Margaret’s father, it also interested her. She pretended as a girl to take

photographs with an empty cigar box. Although she claimed that she never took a photograph

until after her father’s death. Her cousin Florence remembers her helping her father to

develop prints in his bathtub. In 1917, her father suffered a stroke. By 1919, he had

recovered enough for the family to take a trip to Niagara Falls and Canada. While there, she

began to make notes on his photographs, and helped him set up shots on several occasions.

In 1921, she began college at Rutgers, then moved to the University of Michigan, then


Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1927. As a freshman at Michigan, she began

taking pictures for the yearbook, and within a year was offered the seat of photography

editor. Instead of taking the position, she married a engineering graduate student, Everett

Chapman, and abandoned photography to pursue married life. When the marriage fell apart two

years later, she moved to Cornell, where she again took up photography. After she graduated

in 1927, she moved to Cleveland, where her family was living, to start her career with a

portfolio full of architecture pictures she had taken while at Cornell. She called upon

several architects who were Cornell alumni for jobs. After the success of her first job, she

founded the Bourke-White studio in her one room apartment. Then, money she made from

shooting elegant home and gardens by day was spent on photographing steel mills at night and

on the weekends. The circulation of her portfolio brought her to the attention of

Cleveland’s biggest industrial tycoons. After a few failures, she was successful at

capturing the Otis Steel mill. From this, she made enough money to move her studio to the

Terminal Tower skyscraper. In the spring of 1929, she received a telegram from Henry R.

Luce, a publisher who was planning a new weekly magazine called Time. Luce invited her to

come to New York so they could meet, and so Bourke-White could see what Time was to

accomplish. She was unimpressed, but Luce and his editor Parker Lloyd- Smith were also

planning a new business magazine that would make use of dramatic industrial photographs.

This was perfect for Bourke-White. She accepted their offer as a staff photographer. In July

1929, the decision was made to publish the magazine, called Fortune. Bourke-White began

working on stories for the premier issue, eight months away. The first lead story was to

feature Swift & Co., a hog processing plant. She worked with Lloyd-Smith until he became too

sick from the stench to continue. After Bourke-White was finished photographing the hogs,

she left most of her camera equipment to be burned. Her documentation of this was a step in

the development of the photo essay, and Bourke-White’s style.

In 1930, Russia was in the midst of an industrial and cultural revolution. It’s doors


all but closed to westerners, especially photographers. Bourke-White was attracted to

Russia, but her editors at Fortune doubted that she would gain access. They instead sent her

to Germany to photograph the emerging industry there. She decided that she would go on her

own, and after six weeks of waiting, her visa cleared the Soviet bureaucracy. She loaded up

her cameras along with trunks of food, and set off on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia was

full of red tape for Bourke-White. Fortunately for her, an official was so impressed with

her portfolio that he granted her a permit requiring all Soviet citizens to aid and assist

Bourke-White whenever she needed it. Over the next five weeks, she traveled all over Russia,

capturing dams, factories, farms, and their workers. She had taken nearly three thousand

negatives of Russia, the first complete documentary of the newly emerging Soviet Russia. In

the summer of 1931, she was invited back to Russia by the government. This time through

Russia, she concentrated not on machinery, but on people. The New York Times Sunday Magazine

published six article that she had written about the trip, along with her photographs. In

the summer of 1932, Bourke-White went back to Russia, this time to film. This trip, however,

was mainly a failure, since Bourke- White was not technically adept and hadn’t learned the

skill of seeing in motion. As a result, her films did not have the same feeling her

photographs had. She tried to sell the footage to a Hollywood studio, but they would not buy

it because of their fear that it would be seen as propaganda.

In 1936, Bourke-white toured the south with the writer Erskine Caldwell to supply the

pictures for the book You Have Seen Their Faces. The book was a photo documentary of the

poor, rural people of the south. Later in 1936, Henry Luce decided to launch a picture

magazine, spurred on by the success of European picture tabloids. In this magazine, pictures

wouldn’t be subservient to the text; the pictures would tell the story. The magazine was

called Life and Bourke-White was one of the four original photographers hired. She covered

everything from the New Deal towns springing up in the Midwest to the growing conflict in

Europe. In early 1941, tensions were running high in Europe, and Life asked her to return to

Russia, to make a comparison between the current Russia and the one that she saw ten years

before. Bourke-White and Caldwell entered Russia though China. On July 22nd, the first bombs

fell on Moscow and Bourke-White was the only foreign photographer present. The resulting

pictures were a major scoop for Bourke-White and Life. She spent the next four years

covering the European theater of war, it’s leaders, and the aftermath of the Nazi death

camps. She also flew in American bombers on their bombing raids, taking pictures of the


After the war, in 1946, she was sent by Life to cover the emerging countries of


and India. She photographed Mahatma Gandhi many times, taking her last picture of him hours

before he was assassinated. From 1950 to 1956, Bourke-White returned to Life and covered

everything from the Korean War to South African gold mines to the Connecticut River Valley.

In 1956, Bourke-White discovered she had Parkinson’s Disease. After doing research on

the disease, she believed that it manifested itself while she was in Korea, racing against a

deadline. Gradually. the disease shut down Bourke-White’s body, and she had to learn to walk

again. In 1958, a experimental procedure for easing the effects of Parkinson’s was preformed

on Bourke-White. The operation was successful, and Bourke-White resumed working for Life,

but as a writer. Her friend and colleague Alfred Eisenstaedt was the photographer. Together

they covered the same type of surgery Bourke-White had undergone. Bourke-White then asked

the editors to put her story into Life , but they were apprehensive. they eventually

yeilded, and the story was hugely popular. However, in 1961, Parkinson’s once again reached

her right side, and another operation was preformed. this time it was successful, but it

made speech laborious. She began writing, finishing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself.

In 1969, she entered the hospital to begin further treatment for Parkinson’s. By this time

the disease had taken over her body, and she did not respond well to treatment. In the early

summer of 1971, Bourke-White fell and injured herself badly. This accident was one of the

great dangers of Parkinson’s. Bourke-White was confined to a hospital bed. This immobility

brought on complications, and Bourke-White died on August 21st, 1971, at the age of sixty


Margaret Bourke-White contributed many things to the world of photography. She was a

woman, doing a man’s job, in a man’s world, from the foundries of Cleveland to the

battlefields in World War II. She was hailed for accomplishing as much as she did under

these circumstances. She met little resistance from the world due to her sex, since she was

known as a famous and skilled photographer. Her work on Fortune magazine was a step in the

development of the photo essay. She continued this idea of pictures telling a story with her

work with Erskine Caldwell on the books You Have Seen Their Faces and Say, This is the

U.S.A. In these books, Bourke-White supplied the pictures, and Caldwell wrote the text of

the books. She also was the first western photographer to be allowed to document Russia’s

five year plan.

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the pioneering photojournalists of the 20th century.

She achieved extraordinary things for a photographer. Because of the times she worked in,

they are made even more extraordinary because she was a woman. She was one of the first

photographers to work on photo essays. She was the first western photographer to be allowed

in Russia. Later, she was the only western photographer present during the bombing of

Moscow. She was an original staff photographer for two of the most prominent magazines of

her day, Fortune and Life. She led a life full of adventure, pioneering a new art form:

photojournalism. Margaret Bourke-White was, and still is, one of the most important

photographers of the twentieth century.


Bourke-White, Margaret and Caldwell, Erskine. Say, Is This The U.S.A.? Da Capo Press. New

York. 1977.

Callahan, Sean, editor. The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. New York Graphic

Society. 1972.

Goldberg, Vicki. In Hot Pursuit-The Life and Times of Margaret Bourke-White. American

Photographer. June 1986.

Goldberg, Vicki. Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company,

Inc. Reading, Mass. 1987.


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