When Margaret Bourke-White died in 1971, her friend Alfred Eisenstadt said of her, “she was great because there was no assignment, no picture, that was unimportant to her.” It was that ethic, along with her famous relentlessness and personability, that carried Bourke-White to the very top of the photojournalism industry in the 1930s and ‘40s and ensured that her name and her work would live on.
Bourke-White was born 113 years ago today, on June 14, 1904. She is best known for her work with Fortune and Life magazines, her portraits of Joseph Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi, and for her photograph “Kentucky Flood,” depicting black flood victims standing in a breadline under a mural advertising the “world’s highest standard of living.”
Bourke-White first gained recognition in the late 1920s for her industrial photographs. She moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1927 and described coming into the city by boat, saying, “I felt I was coming to my promised land...columns of machinery gaining height as we drew toward the pier, derricks swinging like living creatures. Deep inside I knew these were my subjects.” And they were her subjects for a time; she photographed the Otis Steel Company mills and Ford factories in ‘28 and ‘29, lighting the dark spaces with white magnesium flares in order to capture them on film. The result was a portfolio of beautiful and innovative photos that caught the attention of Henry Luce at Fortune magazine, who brought Bourke-White to New York City.
Bourke-White began working as an associate editor and staff photographer for Fortune in ‘29, then moved to Life in 1936. During this time, she was the first Western photographer to photograph Soviet industry. She worked in the Dust Bowl, photographing drought victims. Her photo of Fort Peck Dam was on the cover of the first issue of Life and was memorialized on a USPS stamp as the singular image that represented the 1930s in the United States. She collaborated with Erskine Caldwell, her future husband, on a book about victims of the Great Depression in the American South titled “Have You Seen Their Faces.” The best, though, was yet to come for Margaret Bourke-White.
The 1940s brought with them the second World War, and Bourke-White became the first female war correspondent and the first female photographer allowed to work in combat zones during the war. When Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, Bourke-White was the only foreign photographer in Moscow during the siege of the city. It was then, in 1941, that she took her famous portrait of Joseph Stalin with a smile on his face, which would be on the cover of Life in ‘43. She remembered the making of the photograph later, in writing:
“I made up my mind that I wouldn't leave without getting a picture of Stalin smiling. When I met him, his face looked as though it were carved out of stone, he wouldn't show any emotion at all. I went virtually berserk trying to make that great stone face come alive.”
“I got down on my hands and knees on the floor and tried out all kinds of crazy postures searching for a good camera angle. Stalin looked down at the way I was squirming and writhing and for the space of a lightning flash he smiled—and I got my picture. Probably, he had never seen a girl photographer before and my weird contortions amused him.”
For the duration of the war, Bourke-White found herself caught up in adventure and danger across Europe and North Africa. She was “torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on a Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed;” she toured a collapsing Third Reich and photographed at Buchenwald, rode in a bomber over Tunisia and with an artillery spotter in Italy. After the war, she photographed Mahatma Gandhi hours before his assassination in 1948 and chronicled the exploding violence at the border of India and Pakistan. By the time she arrived in Korea to document that war, she was known to the staff of Life as “Maggie the Indestructible.”
In 1953, though, Parkinson’s Disease set in and forced Margaret Bourke-White to slow down. Once an indomitable “swashbuckling photojournalist” who for as long as possible kept her illness a secret, Bourke-White underwent surgeries and therapy in the early ‘60s, battled with paralysis, and ultimately retreated to her home in Darien, Connecticut. She had no children and no husband, and in the late ‘60s her connections at Life magazine were her only remaining ties to the world. In 1970, Sean Callahan, a junior editor at the magazine, was tasked to “go up to Connecticut and meet with Bourke-White and find out what the hell is going on.”
In the powerful column that Callahan wrote, he describes Margaret Bourke-White as slow and faltering, speaking in little more than a whisper, but with “blue-grey eyes, bright and clear,” that “literally danced.” For the next 18 months, Callahan visited Bourke-White every Sunday, hearing stories about magazine photojournalism from its First Lady, and together they worked to preserve her photographic legacy and produce Bourke-White’s first monograph. Two days after a fall that broke her ribs, Bourke-White died in 1971.
Of her own work, which is now remembered as some of the best in the history of photojournalism, Margaret Bourke-White said: “I feel that utter truth is essential, and to get that truth may take a lot of searching.”
Written by Carter Boyd