“Saturate yourself with your subject and the camera will all but take you by the hand.” – Margaret Bourke-White
Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneering photojournalist who was the first to document Soviet industry in the 1930s. During that time she photographed in Germany and the dust bowl of the American midwest.
Her storied career
Margaret Bourke-White was hired by Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life magazines, in 1929. Her assignment was to cover business and industry for Fortune magazine. She was there photographing the vault in the First National Bank of Boston on October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed causing the Great Depression. Her photographs of that most difficult economic time are familiar around the world. In 1930 she went to Germany to photograph the Krupp Iron Works.
In 1936 she became Life Magazine’s first female staff photographer. She photographed the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. That image became the cover photo for Life’s first issue. She received access, unheard of before she did it, to work inside the U.S.S.R. covering its industrial revolution.
America’s first woman war correspondent
Bourke-White became the first woman to be accredited to cover combat in World War II. She was the only photographer in Moscow when the Germans staged raids on the Kremlin. She was able to make a portrait of the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin. She followed the Air Force in Europe. She survived the sinking of her ship in an attack by torpedos while crossing the Atlantic to photograph the North African campaign. Later she went over the Rhine River into Germany with General George Patton and his Third Army. There, she made the photographs of the concentration camps and corpses in their gas chambers that have horrified the world.
After the war
Margaret Bourke-White went to India where she photographed Mahatma Gandhi’s final years. She made the picture of him with his spinning wheel hours before he was executed. She covered the Korean War despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She wrote her autobiography “Portrait of Myself”. She continued to work until she retired from Life in 1969.
People often ask me, ‘What’s the best camera?’ That is like asking, ‘What is the best surgeon’s tool?’ Different cameras fill different needs. I have always had a special affection for the larger-than-miniature cameras.
Influential photographers are featured weekly in On Photography.
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