Pure ambition and adventure can be easily communicated through the life story of Margaret Bourke-White. She was a pioneer of the emerging art of photojournalism, as she was part of the original staff of both Fortune and Life magazine.
Bourke-White was born in the Bronx, NY on June 14, 1904. Growing up around her father, who was an engineer, inventor, and photography enthusiast, she was always exposed to the workings behind creating a photo.
In 1921, Bourke-White began college at Rutgers, but after a move or two, she ended up studying under renowned photographer Clarence H. White at Cornell University and graduated from there in 1927.
With her Cornell portfolio in hand, Bourke-White moved to Cleveland, Ohio and began her career. Her portfolio was filled with stunning photographs of architecture, and her work began to get noticed by prominent entrepreneurial publishers.
Publisher Henry R. Luce, in the spring of 1929, sent Bourke-White a telegram inviting her to New York so they can meet. He originally invited her to begin working for the Time magazine, but instead accepted the position as the first staff photographer of the now distinguished Life magazine.
Bourke-White really kicked off her career in 1930, when she traveled to the very closed-off Soviet Russia in the wake of their industrial/cultural revolution. While there, she took rare photos of dams, factories, farms, and their workers—all as new occurrences after the revolution. Her photos created the first complete documentary of the rising Soviet Russia. She eventually published the book “Eyes on Russia” after her first trip there.
Her second trip was the result of an official invitation by the Russian government. This time, Bourke-White began to focus on the people instead of the factories, machinery, and architecture. The New York Times Sunday Magazine published six articles (including photos) from her trip.
Upon her return, she was then started to incorporate a more candid style of photography in order to accurately document the suffering of the American worker during the Great Depression. She explained, “While it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks…it is becoming more and more important to reflect the life that goes on behind these photographs.” In 1934, she was sent on an assignment to document the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. After her trip, she collaborated with writer Erskine Caldwell and published the book “You Have Seen Their Faces”.
Margaret Bourke-White was the only foreign photographer to witness, and document, the first bombings of Moscow in 1941. She continued to cover the European war, and even flew in American bombers during bombing raids, taking photos from above.
After the European War, in 1946, Bourke-White was assigned to cover Pakistan and India—there she had many opportunities to photograph Gandhi, and took her last photo of him only hours before his assassination.
Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1956, therefore, she began to write more than shoot. She finished her autobiography in 1961, “Portrait of Myself”. She died in 1971.
Margaret Bourke-White was truly an original pioneer of photojournalistic style and also of the role of women in the business of changing the world. She used photography as “an instrument to examine social issues from a humanitarian perspective,” and her work will always be remembered and admired for years to come.