Margaret Bourke-White was born on the 14th of June 1904 in a relatively modest area of New York in the Bronx. She was part of an intriguing family where her father, Joseph White, was an inventor and an engineer. Her mother, Minnie Rourke was quite a progressive woman by the social and cultural standards of the 1900s. She was a disciplinarian too and took on the responsibility of educating young Margaret and her younger sister Ruth at home.
Minnie made it a point to monitor her young daughters’ external influences to the tiniest detail. The family moved to New Jersey when she was quite young so that her father could be closer to his job. It was here that young Margaret first saw the pouring of molten iron when her father took her to the printing press.
This imagery left a deep impact on young margaret. Joseph White was a man of scientific temper, but his favorite recreational activity was to click pictures as a photographer. The White residence was filled with numerous photographs that he had captured . As for young Margaret, she was always interested in whatever her father was interested in. She used to play with an empty cigar box as a camera, as she liked to mimic her father doing photography.
She had a cousin called Florence who could recall young Margaret helping her father to develop prints in his bathtub. However, she claimed that she had not taken any real photographs before her father’s death. In 1917, tragedy struck the Whites, as Joseph suffered a stroke and could only recover his health in 1919. In that year, he decided to take his family on a trip to Niagara Falls and Canada. Here, Margaret helped her father to set up the camera for a number of shots and also attentively took detailed notes on her father’s approach to photography.
In 1921, Margaret was old enough to attend college and started at Rutgers before proceeding to take admission in the University of Michigan. From there onwards, she headed to Cornell university where she graduated in 1927. She had been offered the post of photography editor at Cornell, but decided to enter into wedlock with an individual named Everet Chapman. Incidentally, the marriage broke and two years later, she came back to Cornell again to take up photography.
After graduating from Cornell, she moved to her family in Cleveland and started her journey as a photographer, with a portfolio of architecture pictures that she had built up at Cornell. She also called up many of her alumni from Cornell, in order to grab a job. She founded the Burke-White Studio in her one room apartment shortly afterwards.
She managed to make good money by taking photographs of elegant interiors and gardens of affluent homes during days and spent this money on photographing the steel mills during weekends and nights. As her portfolio became bigger and more accomplished, she was noted by some of Cleveland’s biggest industrial tycoons.
Finally, she managed to capture the Otis Steel Mill. With this she made enough money so that she could shift her studio to the Terminal Tower Skyscraper. Then in 1929, she got a call from Henry R. Luce, a publisher who was planning to start a new magazine that would ultimately go on to become the world famous TIME magazine. He invited Margaret to visit him in New York in order to explain to her, his vision for the magazine.
Margaret was unimpressed and turned down the offer. But Luce and his editor Parker Lloyd Smith managed to convince her to be a part of a new business magazine called Fortune where she would work as a staff photographer and take dramatic industrial photographs. Fortune ran its first lead story on a hog processing plant, known as Swift and Co. It had been reported that Burke-White actually burnt all her camera equipment after she was done with this project. She also documented the entire project which served as the inception of the idea of a photo essay.
In the 1930s, Burke-White began getting attracted to the idea of working in Russia. However, Russia was considered to be very anti-western during that time period. The industrial and cultural revolution and transition to communism was responsible for this perception. The editors at Fortune thought that it was unlikely for her to get valuable access in Russia and so they sent her to Germany..
Young Facist 1937
However, Margaret was unimpressed by her experiences in Germany and she became more obsessed about travelling to Russia. Ultimately, after waiting for six weeks, her visa for the Soviet Union was cleared and she made way to the Trans Siberian Railway to enter the Russian mainland. After entering Russia, despite the elaborate red tapism and entrenched bureaucracy, she managed to impress an official who granted her a permit, that ordered citizens to aid her in her endeavours.
This was a perfect solution for her, as she could travel all over Russia and managed to photograph dams, factories, farms and their workers. After completion in the next five weeks, she had nearly 300 negatives and the first and foremost documentary of the newly formed and still emerging communist nation of the Soviet Union.
Her work was rated so highly by the Soviet officials that she was asked to return to Russia in 1931 to take more photographs. This time she chose to concentrate her energy on photographing people and their cultural lifestyle, which got her published in the New York Times magazine. In the summer of 1932, she was back in Russia again, with the aim of filming but sadly she was not adept at the art of filming yet and thus the trip was futile. She even tried to sell the footage to a Hollywood Studio, but nobody bought it fearing that it would be construed as propaganda by portraying Soviet Communism as harmless and misunderstood.
Then in 1936, Burke-White began working on her next big project,as she toured the south along with writer Erskine Cladwell, with the hope of supplying pictures for the book- ‘You have Seen Their Faces’. The book tried to document the lives of people of the south and the economic hardships faced by them.
Then in 1936, Henry Luce was back in fray again, as he wanted to start a picture magazine modeled on the success of the European Tabloid magazines. The magazine would be called ‘Life’ and it portrayed pictures as the main component as opposed to writing. Through the course of this work, she managed to cover a lot of stuff starting from the new deal to the looming threat of conflict in Europe, in the face of Hitler’s Germany.
In 1941, at the peak of tensions in Europe, Life magazine sent her back to Russia to do a comparison piece on Russia of 1941 with the Russia decade back, , when she had first visited. Bourke-White and Caldwell managed to enter Russia through China and Burke-White was the only foreign photojournalist present in Moscow when it was bombed on August 22nd.
These pictures led to the resounding success of Life magazine and the next four years she traveled around Europe covering various war theatres where conflict was going on. She also managed to take pictures of the horrifying concentration camps setup by the Nazis once they were abandoned. Burke-White was also one of the few photographers who managed to get pictures of the American Bombing Raids, as she flew in with the bomber planes.
After the war, she was tasked with covering the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan, where she managed to photograph the great global peace icon and hero of the Indian freedom struggle Mahatma Gandhi. She was actually the last person to take the Mahatma’s picture, before he was assassinated. Between 1950-1956, she was working for Life magazine on a variety of different projects starting from the Korean War to the South African gold mine and the Connecticut River Valley.
South African Miners 1950
Burke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1956. She was adamant that the disease had manifested in her while she was in Korea and working against time, to finish projects before deadlines. In 1958, Burke-White’s life of drama and intrigue continued, as she became a part of a successful experimental procedure that sought to ease the effects of Parkinson’s. After the treatment, she started working for Life again, but only as a writer.
Her close friend and colleague Alfred Eisenstaedt was the photographer and together they managed to cover the types of treatment Burke-white herself went through. Despite some hesitation on the part of Life’s editors, to publish this story, it eventually turned out to be a huge success. Then in 1961, Parkinson reached her right side and she went through another operation and rigorous treatment. Although the operation was successful, it left her with impaired speech. Yet, she managed to write and complete her autobiography, which was published under the name ‘Portrait of Myself’.
Finally, in 1971, the disease took a toll on her and Burke-White fell and injured herself which eventually led to her death on August 21st after a short stint of immobility. She had lived for sixty-seven years, the bulk of which was spent in traveling and taking pictures. Her contribution to the art of photography is difficult to quantify. As a woman, in a male-dominated patriarchal society, she held her own in a variety of physical, social, political, and cultural environments and managed to capture countless unforgettable and timeless moments.
From the unfairness in Cleveland to the theatres of battle in the Second World War, she managed to live a life of adventure and thrill. She started a new form of art, as a result of her dedication and unmatched determination that came to be known as the art of photojournalism. Margaret Bourke-White was and shall remain one of the most important, unforgettable, and enigmatic photographers in the history of photography.