(8/55) Margaret Bourke-White - photographer

Margaret Bourke-White

Farrah Fawcett (as Margaret Bourke-White)

Candice Bergen (as Margaret Bourke-White)

The chances are, if you're reading this you've come here because you've followed  a link from my Twitter feed @photographs_etc or a re-tweet from someone else's feed. You may also have reading this because you've followed some links as part of a google search.

All of this sounds normal to you doesn't it? As is the fact that  I also have a website containing personal photography (it's at www.nick-lloyd.com if you're curious.)

The fact is that digital communication has utterly, completely and irreversibly changed the dynamic that allows anyone anywhere in the world, the possibility to find and maintain an audience for their photography.

But it wasn't always this way. Ten years ago, one of the tools mentioned above didn't exist. Go back another 10 years to 1992 and you can take out all the other tools I (and probably you too) commonly use and take very much for granted.

The world before the internet existed, for photographers was very different. It was a world in which photography 'stars' existed in books and magazines and if you were lucky, you could see their work as original prints in a gallery. And the only way to find out what was happening in the world of photography was to buy a magazine. Its was also harder to find like minded souls. Much harder.

As an example, the very first time I met a group of like minded photographers, who were interested in making & talking about original, independent, creative photography wasn't at a camera club. It was at one of the very few workshops concentrating on independent photography in the UK. A pleasure that I actually had to pay for.
This was just 25 years ago in 1987. Talk to anyone involved in photography over 40 and this will sound very familiar. It really was different. So very different to how easy it is to connect today.

Which brings us to Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971.) And the very different world in which her most famous photography was created and consumed.

There are many interesting aspects to her work not the least of which was her status as one of the very first celebrity photographers at a time when picture magazines were emerging as a major mass market medium.

Born, Margaret White in the Bronx, New York to a jewish father & Irish-Catholic mother worked her way to become associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine, where she stayed until 1935 (she wouldn't be the last major photographer employed there - see here for more on Walker Evans work at Fortune.) 
The same year she was employed by Fortune, Margaret White added her mother's surname, "Bourke" to her name and hyphenated it.

Fortune wasn't a small-town trade magazine. Founded by Henry Luce, working there was a big break by anyone's measure of success. On hearing that she got the job, "I wrote my mother: “I feel as if the world has been opened up and I hold all the keys.”

Evidently she thrived in the competitive (mostly male dominated) business of magazine photography producing effective photo journalism, at a time before TV, when picture magazines were one of the primary avenues of communicating current events to the masses.

It's worth noting that among the many essays Bourke-White completed for the new publication, was an essay on Soviet Industry (see below) when she became the first foreign photographer allowed into the country to take pictures.

Iron puddler with glasses parked over his brow, at the
"Red October" Rolling Mills (and below) Stalingrad  (c.1931)


Magnitogorsk 1931
Russian worker riding a hay wagon in Siberia

Bourke-White was then (re-hired?) by Luce as the first female photojournalist for another new picture magazine (Life) in 1936 on a starting salary of $12,000.

In 1936 the average US family income was $1,500. And remember this was in the midst of the Great Depression when to be working at any job on a regular basis for a weekly or monthly pay check was uncommon.

But what were these photographs like that she was producing to Life's punishing deadlines?

Right from the start, she seems to have made a splash. She landed a cover spot with her first assignment about the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. A bold photograph.Very graphic.Deliberately chosen I'm sure to be distinctive and make an impact on US newsstands with its very first issue.

For more than 30 years, Margaret Bourke-White worked for this leading picture magazine. But not all her work was created exclusively for Life.

She was also involved in producing longer pictorial essays published in book form, including 'Eyes on Russia' (1931) 'North of the Danube' (1939; with Erskine Caldwell) 'Shooting the Russian War' (1942) and 'They Called it Purple Heart Valley' (1944)

 The most notorious book (at least to modern eyes) she produced was made in collaboration with the popular southern novelist Erskine Caldwell. Working as a photographer/writer team in the poverty-stricken rural areas of the American South, the work they produced was published in 1937 by Viking Press with the title 'You Have Seen Their Faces'.
This book is very rarely mentioned in contemporary photography circles. Mainly due to the influence and critical appreciation of a book published 4 years later, 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' (1941) by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, which was (and continues to be) seen by many as the definitive portrait of poverty & the landscape & manners of the rural southern united states.

 At the time it was published, Bourke-White & Caldwell's book was criticized for its bias and exposure of racism in the south. That seems odd looking with modern eyes at many of the photo spreads & accompanying captions in the book. Looking at the photographs & captions, one is struck by what to modern eyes is the casual racism of the captions and the photographs with which they are linked but also what seems the lack of compassion and insight by Calwell & Bourke-White. 
Given the job at hand, it seems extraordinary that so little thought appears to have been given to a sympathetic marriage of word & image.

According to Caldwell, Bourke-White. “was in charge of everything, manipulating people and telling them where to sit and were to look and what not. She was very adept at being able to direct people.”
Perhaps that's why the individuals depicted seem no more (or less) than props within the pages of the book. 
Given that Bourke-White's experience up to that time was regularly producing, or rather constructing effective photographs to compliment written journalism - all to punishing deadlines, it's perhaps not surprising that her photographic contribution to this book lacked subtlety. Or insight. 
She was extremely competent at making symbolic, individually striking photographs that could compete with adverts in the restricted format of a somewhat disposable weekly magazine. 

Caldwell's description of her working methods seems to very effectively describe the working habits of a commercial working photographer. She was a trouble-shooter and a problem solver. All evidently good qualities for a high profile working photographer. But not perhaps qualities associated with a more reflective & self-conscious artist.

In comparison, Evans & Agee's book, a wonderful sprawling mixture of journalism and self-confession, innovative narrative and clear headed naturalism is quite rightly regarded as a superior document of its times.
Evans, by temperament and circumstance took a more measured view of those who came into the view of his various cameras. And history has taken a very positive view of his judgements and taste and those of his creative companion James Agee.
(I'll comment more on the book when I write my appreciation of Walker Evans, as part of my series on master photographers.)



Tenant farmers daughter (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men)

(You Have Seen Their Faces)

Floyd Burroughs (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men)

(You Have Seen Their Faces)

 Allie Mae Burroughs (Let us Now Praise Famous Men)


(You Have Seen Their Faces)


(You Have Seen Their Faces)

At around the same time, Bourke-White, (like Dorothea Lange and her companion photographers from the Farm Security Administration) photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl.
A period when severe dust storms caused major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands in the 1930s. 

In the February 15, 1937 issue of Life magazine published her photographs of dust bowl survivors, one of which was to become one of Bourke-White signature' images and one of handful of images indelibly associated with  that period in American history.
The photograph showed black drought victims standing in-front of a sign which declared, "World's Highest Standard of Living".

Its an amazing photograph and one worth looking at in more depth. All of the people shown are standing in line, waiting for relief supplies. Dressed in coats and jackets, most of them are looking right at the camera and us, more than 75 years later in 2012.
They don't actually seem like victims do they? What strikes me, more than perhaps any other single element in the photograph (apart from the ironic image behind them) is their quiet dignity and resignation.
If they resent the lifestyle & cheery nuclear oneness of the white-bread family behind them it's not apparent. They have more important things on their mind after all.

It's a great image. It's certainly a critique of somewhat ill-advised  advertising (did they not know the local demographic?) It also 'seems' like a critique of capitalism, for isn't that the 'american way' that lay behind their woes?
I don't know what white families (like the one in the poster behind them) would have made of the image at the time the photograph was published. But you can be sure that black families, enduring the many hardships of the Great Depression knew what the picture was about. They might have smirked at the irony in the picture but you can be sure they wouldn't have been laughing.

Back at Life, Bourke-White continued to contribute photographs to the magazine. Helping (with the other contributors) to ensure that Life's circulation continued to grow and outpace their competitors.
To give an example of how popular Life had become, it went from 380,000 copies of the first issue wo more than one million a week four months later.

During this period, Bourke-White became the first female war correspondent (and the first female permitted to work in combat zones.) Some examples of that work are shown below.

Moscow 1941

An Allied artillery barrage at night, the Italian front, 1944

In the spring of 1945, travelling with Gen. George S. Patton. She was on hand to witness and photograph the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. As she later said,"Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me." 
The photographs she took, published in Life were among the first images to show the world the full horror of Hitler's Nazi madness. Another of Bourke-Whites 'signature' images is shown below.

Buchenwald in April 1945

Bourke-White continued to photograph for Life on and off until her semi-retirement in 1957 and then her full retirement in 1969.

It's important to say, that although Bourke-White's reputation was as a hard-nosed photo-reporter, (professional colleagues including other photographers often apparently regarded her as imperious, calculating, and insensitive) what's often missed is her photographic curiosity & interest in innovation.

A good example is the series of photographs she took from the vantage point of a helicopter. Flying lower than a plane and able to traverse large distances quickly, Bourke-White took many interesting and very modern photographs.

The photographer Weegee took many memorable photographs at Coney Island including this famous photograph (when almost every single person on the beach seems to be looking at the lens.) 

He also took harsher photographs, including a drowning incident, which features a young woman seemingly oblivious to the tragedy taking place by her side, smiling at the camera.

Bourke-White's image (below) is no less stark. Perhaps the ultimate 'helicopter' view/perspective, where crowds of humans, losing their scale, swarm like ants towards the center of the near tragedy on the sand. The woman involved did survive, but one wonders what she would feel looking at the compelling evidence of her fellow man's (and woman's) wish to insistently gaze upon her personal trauma?

Beach accident (near drowning)  Coney Island

Other photographs in this series are just as compelling including:

Trains after snowfall, Chicago, 1952.

Beach riders,  Ocean Beach, near Fort Funston, California.

I can't complete this look at Margaret Bourke-White, without including a mention of 2 more of her signature images:a photograph of Ghandi at his pinning wheel, taken just a few hours before his assassination in 1948.

 and this photograph of South African gold miners, photographed more than a mile underground in 1950

                                                             Interesting postscript. 

While the photographs in You Have Seen Their Faces, could be taken as an indictment of Burke-White sensibilities, she did in fact take many interesting photographs in black communities in the US (and around the world.)
None of these photographs were perhaps more fascinating than a series she took in colour on the subject of segregation in South Carolina. Only it wasn't published in Life Magazine.
This series of photographs, only recently available online, is as fresh as any modern photo-journalism and is intensely sympathetic to the people she is photographing in the black community.
Looking at every aspect of their lives, from arrests by white police to evening dances at a juke joint it's a remarkable series of photographs.

A belated (and positive) testament to the career and photography of Margaret Bourke-White.
One of the first major photo-journalists. And still one of the best.

All photographs copyright original copyright owners
All text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012
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Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Really interesting stuff.

Nick_L said...

Glad you liked it. If you enjoyed that article, there are more articles from the series here: