Margaret Bourke-White, born in the Bronx in 1904, was one of the earliest prominent female photographers – working for a number of notable publications, primarily LIFE magazine. Though she studied photography in college, she was uninterested in pursuing it as a profession until long out of school. Eventually, she formed her own company, with Otis Steel Company among her first clients. Through this work, she proved both her worth as a female photographer and her skill at capturing detail through the lens. Accordingly, she began to attract national attention.
Bourke-White was hired in 1929 as a staff photographer for Fortune magazine, allowing her up-close access to the financial collapse that ultimately became The Great Depression. In 1936 she was hired by publishing magnate Henry Luce as LIFE Magazine’s first female photographer. One of her earliest assignments was covering the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a Public Works Administration project in Montana. Her photo negatives, arriving at the LIFE office just 24 hours before the first issue’s publication, made the cover—published on November 23, 1936. The issue sold out immediately and within months the magazine’s circulation more than tripled. The cover photo was selected by the United States Postal Service to represent the 1930s in its series, “Celebrate the Century.”
During the mid-thirties, Bourke-White also traveled the American Dust Bowl, photographing those living through the national disaster. The photos became a book, You Have Seen Their Faces, that explored the humanity of those suffering in the Dust Bowl and during the depression.
In 1941, Margaret toured Europe and the Soviet Union as what we believe to be the first female war correspondent. She is alleged to be the only Western photographer in Moscow during the German raids on the Kremlin, where she captured Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s portrait. She and her fellow journalists are said to have ushered Russian citizens to safety—all while taking the only photographs of the attack, including a shot of the Kremlin, lit by bombs exploding around it. Over the course of the war, Bourke-White was embedded with the U.S. Army and Air Force in North Africa, Italy, and Germany, coming under heavy fire in each location.
While in Europe, Bourke-White traveled throughout Germany with American General George S. Patton and, through her lens, documented untold atrocities. She captured images of brutal work camps, Nazi officials and their families, dead from suicides, and the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, including survivors and the furnaces where so many Jews were burned. She kept secret the fact that her father was Jewish and later admitted that she used her camera lens to create a barrier between herself and what she was witnessing.
Margaret also requested permission to cover the North African campaign, where she traveled by ship. The boat was struck by a torpedo and sunk. Bourke-White salvaged only one of her cameras and captured images of other survivors on lifeboats. Between this and her experiences in Europe, she became known at LIFE as “Maggie the Indestructible.” She was also the subject of an Army “pin-up” poster, the photo for which was captured after she flew on a B-17 bombing raid. Her photos of the raid would run in LIFE magazine, and pictures of Margaret dressed in flying gear made her perhaps the most clothed military pin-up of all time.
After an entire career as a conflict photographer, Bourke-White traveled into Pakistan in the late 1940s to cover the battles between India and Pakistan and the Indian freedom movement. She recorded horrors that were unlike any she had seen since photographing concentration camps. After the war, she spent a great deal of time documenting the life of Mohandas Gandhi. One of her most famous images was that of Gandhi at his spinning wheel, taken in 1946. According to documents from the International Photography Hall of Fame, there were two conditions for photographing him: do not speak to him, as it was his day of silence, and do not use artificial light. Due to the dim light in his hut, she convinced them to allow her three flashbulbs. According to Bourke-White, “I was grateful that he would not speak to me, for I could see it would take all the attention I had to overcome the halation from the wretched window just over his head. He started to spin, beautifully, rhythmically and with a fine nimble hand…When Gandhi made a most beautiful movement as he drew the thread, I pushed the trigger and was reassured by the sound that everything had worked properly.” She also interviewed and photographed Gandhi a few hours before his 1948 assassination.
After India, Margaret’s next assignment was to cover the Korean War. It was there, in 1953, where she began to notice symptoms of what she would learn was Parkinson’s disease. Within four years, she found herself unable to continue working and eventually retired from LIFE in 1969. Bourke-White endured multiple treatments and two brain surgeries in an attempt to combat her illness; she was able to successfully end her tremors but her speech was permanently affected. During this time, she wrote her autobiography, Portrait of Myself and continued to lecture. Over the course of her lifetime, Bourke-White would write eleven books.
Bourke-White died in 1971 at age 67, from Parkinson’s disease. She is quoted as saying, “Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.” For her immeasurable skill and ability to find the humanity in the most difficult circumstances, Margaret White-Bourke is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: Time Magazine
This is a remarkable story about one of our most remarkable women. What courage she had. And how fortunate that she claimed the attention of such a power tool as LIFE. For “a woman in the news” she was trusted and not scorned. For men to claim that women are too emotional to handle great
responsibility, this should really be an eye-opener.
Once again you’ve caused me to stretch– my knowledge, my thinking, and my understanding of who we are as women.
Thank you for this well traveled journey. It’s so nice being in the company of women along the way including those who’ve completed their travels leaving a treasure behind for us.