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Margaret Bourke White
(1904 - 1971)

margaret bourke white

Margaret Bourke White was one of those incredible 20th century photographers whose career spanned WWII in addition, seemingly, to just about every other dramatic twist and turn of that century.

Her eye was first drawn to the imposing proportions of industrial architecture, but later took her to social, political and military events of the grandest scale as they played out across the globe.

She's certainly amongst the most famous women photographers there have been, and, in respect of her gender, was a real pioneer when taking on certain dangerous projects.

She was famous for always challenging herself and stands squarely in a proud tradition of adventurous photographers!

 

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Margaret Bourke White was born in New York in 1904. The seeds of her attitudes as a photographer lay in her parents' deep conviction of the need for self-improvement.

Her father, Joseph, also had a general fascination with the world and an interest in cameras. Both of these soon rubbed off on Margaret and she was an enthusiastic photographer throughout her school years.

She continued taking pictures when she was at College and graduated from Cornell University in 1927. From there she headed to Cleveland and set up a commercial photography studio, specialising in architectural and industrial photography.

It wasn't long before Margaret Bourke White started to challenge the status quo. She won a commission for the Otis Steel Company, but had to overcome their 'concerns' that a woman might not cope with the rough, tough environment of a steel mill!

In order to capture the images for Otis Steel she actually had to pioneer a new kind of lighting technique, in order to clearly record things that were bathed in a hazy orange light on early black and white film.

She began to acquire national recognition for her work and, in 1929, took a job as staff photographer for Fortune magazine. The following year she accepted an invitation to be the first western photographer to document Soviet industry.

 

A few examples of architectural / industrial work by Margaret Bourke White:

Under Construction Blast Furnace at Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Industrial Complex
Under Construction Blast Furnace at Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Industrial Complex Photographic Print
Bourke-White,...
Buy at AllPosters.com

Support Struts Inside Section of a Giant Pipe Used to Divert Flow of Missouri River
Support Struts Inside Section of a Giant Pipe Used to Divert Flow of Missouri River Photographic Print
Bourke-White,...
Buy at AllPosters.com

Nyc Police Helicopter Passing over Downtown Skyport on the Waterfront in Lower Manhattan
Nyc Police Helicopter Passing over Downtown Skyport on the Waterfront in Lower Manhattan Photographic Print
Bourke-White,...
Buy at AllPosters.com

As her reputation grew, she was employed as LIFE magazine's first ever woman photographer. One of Bourke White's most famous images, a picture of the Fort Peck Dam, appeared on the front cover of LIFE in 1936.

During the Great Depression, the career of Margaret Bourke White took on a striking parallel with another of the most famous women photographers of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange.

Both women were drawn to the hardships suffered by people in the southern states and produced some very affecting images. They both met and married writers, with whom they collaborated on books about the Depression. Bourke White's joint work from this time was titled You Have Seen Their Faces.

margaret bourke white collectionMargaret Bourke White: Photographer is a retrospective that shows work from throughout Margatet Bourke White's career.

When the Second World War hit, Margaret Bourke White really started to get adventurous! Not content to sit back and watch the action from afar, she had soon got herself into a position as the first female war correspondent, with permission - another first for a woman - to enter combat zones.

Like several other famous photographers who were active at this time, her adventures in documenting the action throughout Europe, Russia and North Africa were relentless and incredibly hazardous.

She always seemed to be in the thick of it, like when she was holed up in Moscow when the Germans stormed the city! Her proximity to the action - and the horror - yielded a lot of powerful work, whilst her repeated close scrapes earned her the nickname Maggie the indestructible!

Silhouette of the Embattled Kremlin During German Bombing Raid on the City
Silhouette of the Embattled Kremlin During German Bombing Raid on the City Photographic Print
Bourke-White,...
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Margaret Bourke White later was present for the upheaval surrounding Partition in India. At this time she took one of, if not the most famous photo of Mahatma Gandhi. He is sitting, legs folded, at a spinning wheel, with a book in his hand and reading glasses perched on his nose. It's a powerful shot that symbolised his non-violent approach.

Indian Leader Mohandas Gandhi Reading as He Sits Cross Legged on Floor
Indian Leader Mohandas Gandhi Reading as He Sits Cross Legged on Floor Premium Photographic Print
Bourke-White,...
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Having survived such dangers throughout her career, Maggie the indestructible was tragically diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1953. The disease took its toll and she was forced into early semi-retirement.

In 1963, with the waning of her photographic career, she penned a bestselling autobiography titled A Portrait of Myself.

Whilst her reputation as one of the century's best photographers was assured, Margaret Bourke White sadly endured a tough final few years. She was unable to afford the full healthcare required to treat her Parkinson's, and died in 1971 at age 67.

View a collection of Bourke White's photography here.

 


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If you enjoyed this brief biography of Margaret Bourke White, check out more famous photographer biographies here.

If you are interested in other famous women photographers, here's a bio of the brilliant Dorothea Lange

 

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