|Margaret 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 to 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 July1929, 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 were 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 had 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 articles 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.
After the war, in 1946, she was sent by Life to cover the emerging countries of Pakistan 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. 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 yielded, 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 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 seven.
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 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.
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