The Pioneering Photography of Margaret Bourke-White

Meet America's first female war photojournalist

By Google Arts & Culture

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Margaret Bourke-White was a woman of many firsts. She was LIFE magazine’s first female staff photographer, the first Western photographer permitted to enter the Soviet Union during the 1930s industrial revolution, and the first accredited female photographer to cover the combat zones of WWII.

Beginning as a hobby in her youth, Bourke-White’s photography skills soon led her to be a leading documentary photographer, called “Maggie the Indestructible” by her colleagues. She was known for her bravery, her resourcefulness, and her ability to be in the right place at the right time.

Casual portrait of LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White outdoors reclining in lounge chair holding a kitten

Born in the Bronx, New York in 1904, she became interested in cameras, partly due to her father’s career as an inventor and engineer who worked with printing presses. However, it wasn’t until after his death that she actually used one for herself when her mother bought her one as a gift. She honed her craft during a one week course at The Clarence H. White School of Modern Photography and after flicking between college degrees and failing to find one that stuck, went on to move to Cleveland, Ohio to start a commercial photography studio.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White

She began by concentrating on architectural and industrial photography, and during a stint at the Otis Steel Company, made her name by producing some of the best steel factory photographs of the era. Photographing steelmaking was difficult—not least because people doubted that a woman could withstand the hazardous, dirty, and intense conditions of a steel mill—as the industrial process produced a lot of red and orange light, but the black-and-white film of the era reacted only to blue light. Bourke-White worked around this by using a magnesium flare, which produced white light, to illuminate the scenes around her. She sold the photos for $100 each, the equivalent of around $1500 in present day.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

200-ton ladle at work near blast furnace in the Otis Steel mill

Ft. Peck (1936) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Construction of giant pipes used to divert a section of the Missouri River during the building of the Fort Peck Dam

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

First LIFE cover featuring Peck Dam

Bourke-White accepted a job at Fortune magazine, where she was given permission to document the industrialisation of the Soviet Union. It was here that her attention began to turn to people, not machines.

In 1936, Bourke-White joined LIFE magazine as their first female photojournalist; one of her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on the cover of the very first issue. She travelled around the world photographing the conditions of communism, and is believed to be the only photographer stationed in Moscow during the 1941 German raids of the Kremlin. With one of the 5 cameras, 2 lenses and 3,000 flashbulbs she packed, she even managed to capture a picture of Joseph Stalin with the beginnings of a smile.

Stalin (1941-08) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Margaret Bourke-White's photographic equipment

Russia (1941) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Later, Bourke-White’s work became a lot more life-threatening as she became the first woman to be allowed to photograph combat zones during World War II. Traveling to North Africa, the ship she was on was hit by a torpedo and sunk. Bourke-White managed to save only one of her many cameras and make it to a lifeboat. This didn’t deter her, and she went on to travel to Italy and Germany with the army; her favourite photo of herself became a self-portrait she snapped before she flew on a bombing raid aboard a B-17.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White clad in fleece flight suit while holding aerial camera, standing in front of Flying Fortress bomber

Bourke-White wrote as well as photographing, and after visiting Buchenwald and documenting the atrocities at the recently liberated concentration camp, she wrote Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly to help her to come to terms with the brutality she had witnessed. In response to what she saw, she said: "Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me."

Buchenwald Concentration Camp (1945-04-13) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Liberation Of Buchenwald (1945-04-13) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

While spending 2 years in India, Bourke-White managed to capture one of her most famous images, Gandhi with his spinning wheel, despite being instructed not to talk to him as he was observing a day of silence and not to use artificial light. Luckily, she was able to convince them to let her use some flash, as the hut that Gandhi lived in was too dark to rely on natural light. This was only a few hours before he was assassinated.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Indian ldr. Mohandas Gandhi reading as he sits cross-legged on floor

In 1953, Bourke-White began developing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and by 1957, she was unable to continue her work. She spent the rest of her life lecturing, and writing her autobiography and essays; she published 11 books in her lifetime in total. Bourke-White died in 1971 but left behind some of the most eye-opening photojournalism of the era, while also paving an inspiring path for the next generation of women photographers.

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