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Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources

Introduction & Biographical Essay


Margaret Bourke-White, half-length portrait, facing left, holding camera.
Margaret Bourke-White,
holding camera (detail), 1940.
Photo by Acme Newspictures, Inc.

Margaret Bourke-White was a woman of firsts: the first photographer for Fortune, the first Western professional photographer permitted into the Soviet Union, Life magazine's first female photographer, and the first female war correspondent credentialed to work in combat zones during World War II.

The Prints & Photographs Division has a limited number of her photographs but the Library of Congress holds extensive resources for research about Bourke-White and her life. Bourke-White's personal papers External link, along with photographic proofs of her work, are housed at the Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, New York. The rights to nearly all of her images are held by the TIME-LIFE organization, and reproduction can be expensive.

Early Life

On her parents' wedding anniversary, June 14, 1904, Margaret was born in the Bronx to Joseph White and Minnie Bourke.1 Her original name was Margaret or Maggie White, but she is remembered as "Bourke-White." Joseph White, Maggie's father, was an inventor and an engineer. Minnie, her mother, was a progressive-thinking person. The family moved to rural Bound Brook, N. J, when Margaret was very young so her father could be closer to his job designing printing equipment.

Minnie home schooled their children -- Maggie was the second of three -- and stressed moral values such as courage and determination. Margaret took to heart her parents' admonition to be afraid of nothing. She constantly challenged herself. Both parents were committed to the late nineteenth century Ethical Culture movement. According to its basic premise, if a person lived according to ethical principles, it would be good for the individual and for the world.

Joseph educated his children by sharing his interests. When Margaret was eight, she went with her father to watch the manufacture of his printing presses. Seeing molten iron being poured made such an impression on her that during her career she made photographs of heavy industry again and again. In 1930, she participated in the "Men and Machines" exhibition in New York City, and predicted "Any important art coming out of the industrial age will draw inspiration from industry, because industry is alive and vital."2

Fascinated by optics, Joseph became an avid photographer. Despite his prolonged silences and preoccupation with his work, he took Margaret with him when he went out making pictures. She would follow him, pretending to make photographs with an empty cigar box.3 Although she helped him develop his pictures in the family bathtub, she did not make her own photographs until she was an adult. In fact, she didn't use a camera until after he had died.4

A recent study of her early photographs concludes in an accompanying essay that she documented the industrial era in the first decades of the twentieth century.5 It is likely that her fascination with factories dates from work her father did.6

In the fall of 1921, Bourke-White began college at Columbia University in New York City. During her second semester, she registered for a photography class with Clarence H. White, whose focus was design and composition.7 Bourke-White loved the class, and, after her father died in January 1922, her mother was able to buy her a secondhand camera.

After attending summer school at Rutgers University in 1921, Bourke-White transferred to the University of Michigan to study herpetology.8 There she met and married Everett "Chappie" Chapman, a graduate student in electrical engineering. They were married on June 13, 1924, the day before her birthday and her parents' anniversary, thus avoiding a triple anniversary the following day.9 With Chapman, Bourke-White transferred to Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, to study paleontology and then to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland.10 When the marriage ended after two years, she moved to Ithaca, N.Y., in 1926 to attend Cornell University for her senior year. In her autobiography she wrote that she went there "because I read there were waterfalls on the campus."11

Early Professional Life

At Cornell, Bourke-White earned money by selling pictures of the school buildings and grounds to the Cornell Alumni News and to fellow students. After several architects praised her photographs, she traveled to New York City and walked unannounced into an architect's office to get an unbiased opinion of her portfolio. The architect assured her she could find photographic work with any architectural firm in the country.12

After graduation, she bade goodbye to studying snakes, finalized her divorce, and legally changed her name, taking back her maiden name and yoking it to her mother's maiden name with a hyphen -- Margaret Bourke-White. This was the name the world would remember.

She took a boat to Cleveland where she made it her mission to shatter the bias against allowing women inside the city's steel mills. Although her studio was mostly a letterhead on paper, she set up a workspace: "I did my processing in the kitchenette, the rinsing in the bathtub; and the living room served as reception room when the in-a-door bed was pushed out of the way."13

Later she opened a proper studio in Cleveland's landmark Terminal Tower. Not far from the Tower, stretching to the Lake Erie's edge, was an industrial wasteland known as The Flats. To her it was "a photographic paradise." Here were the mills that were off-limits to women. It took her months of experimenting and discovering a new printing paper, but she produced impressive pictures of the steel-making process . Her pictures impressed the head of Otis Steel. The Library has two of the 550 original copies of The Otis Steel Company -- Pioneer, Cleveland, Ohio External link, portfolios of Bourke-White photogravures privately published in 1929.

A Stint at Fortune

Henry Luce, publisher of Fortune magazine for businessmen, saw Bourke-White's Otis Steel Company photographs. He wanted to display the beauty of industry in his new magazine by using dramatic illustrations that were part of the story, not merely complementary to it.14 He telegraphed her, "Have just seen steel photographs. Come to New York."15 For two days, Bourke-White ignored the message, then decided to take a free trip to New York, liked what she heard, and went to work for the magazine. It was 1929. She was 25. Luce soon sent her to Chicago to capture the workings of the Swift and Company meatpacking plant. With "Hogs," an article in Fortune, Bourke-White helped popularize the photographic essay.16

In the summer of 1930, Fortune sent Bourke-White to Germany to photograph its emerging industries. The next challenge was Russia, as closed to foreign photographers as Cleveland's steel mills had been to women, although American industrialists were allowed in. Through her connections with Cleveland industrialists, the quality of her work, and the weeks she spent lobbying the Soviet embassy in Germany for a visa to enter Russia, Bourke-White gained access where no Western photographer had been allowed.

Portrait Prof. Kukareruburu, Medical School, T.B. Institute, Tiflis, Georgia
Portrait Prof. Kukareruburu,
Medical School, T.B. Institute,
Tiflis, Georgia, 1931 or 1932.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

Between 1930 and 1933, she made three trips to the Soviet Union to photograph industry and life there. The images, published in Soviet magazines, Fortune, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and her own book, Eyes on Russia, made Bourke-White one of the most famous photographers in America.

In 1932, she made photographs of Soviet medical institutions for Sir Arthur Newsholme of England and John Adams Kingsbury of New York City who toured the Soviet Union and published a report on their findings, Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia illustrated with eight photographs by Margaret Bourke-White.17 She dedicated to the public her rights to these photographs. Respected by both popular and academic audiences, she exhibited her work in museums, lectured on the Soviet Union and the role of women in photography, and was offered lucrative endorsement offers for products such as Maxwell House Coffee, which she needed to finance her career.18

Life at LIFE

In 1936, Luce offered Bourke-White a full-time position with his new magazine, LIFE. Its first female staff photographer, she would remain with LIFE for the rest of her career. A skilled self-promoter, her enormous ego helped promote the magazine, as well. When her photograph of Montana's Fort Peck Dam debuted on the cover of the initial issue on November 23, 1936, it sold out in hours, and in four months, circulation had gone from 380,000 to more than one million a week.19 Her picture of the monumental dam symbolized economic recovery during the Great Depression. The image remained memorable enough to be selected by the United States Postal Service at the end of the twentieth century to help represent the 1930s in its Celebrate the Century series of stamps.

Photograph showing a barn on an arid plain with a man sharpening a farm tool on a grinding wheel that is being turned by another man; children are nearby with a dog and a lamb.
Drought, 1934.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

Bourke-White specialized initially in photographing industry: the men, machines, materials, and buildings that had fascinated her in childhood. But she was changing. Social issues became increasingly important to her, and she often requested assignments to areas of dynamic social change, where strife satisfied her appetite for living dangerously.

Bourke-White made some of her most powerful pictures of social injustice during the Louisville, Kentucky, flood of 1937. Landing minutes before the airport runways flooded, she waded through the city and floated in rafts to get the pictures she wanted. Her photograph of a grim group of African-Americans waiting in a bread line below a billboard of a happy white family which declared, "World's Highest Standard of Living--There's No Way Like the American Way," captured both the difficulty of the flood and the social realities of the times. Later, in Jersey City, N.J., in 1938, she detailed the corruption of mayor "Boss" Frank Hague and substantiated claims of child labor in the city's slums.

Illustration shows an African American man(?) looking through bars, probably at a jail.
St. Tammany Parish,
Louisiana, 1937.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

When she began working for Life, she was also collaborating with author Erskine Caldwell on a book of text and pictures documenting the impact of the Great Depression on the South. In Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee, Caldwell described and Bourke-White photographed the lives and living conditions of the country's poorest citizens. When published in November 1937, You Have Seen Their Faces achieved critical acclaim and tremendous success. It was also criticized, however, for reinforcing stereotypes and for putting Caldwell's words into the mouths of the people she photographed. The book immediately became popular in a way that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans and James Agee, did not, although the latter has since become a classic. Agee and Evans were outraged by Faces.20

In 1938, Life sent Bourke-White and Caldwell to Czechoslovakia and Hungary to document the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Central Europe. Shocked by what they observed, the couple extended their stay by several months, recording the violence and anti-Semitism they encountered. Their experiences were published in 1946 as Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report On The Collapse Of Hitler's Thousand Years.

Bourke-White and Caldwell also spent about six months abroad on a variety of assignments, collecting material for the book later published as North of the Danube. To celebrate completion of their project, they flew to Reno, got a license, and were married in Silver City, Nevada, on February 27, 1939. They settled in Darien, Connecticut.21

Construction framework of dam in foreground.
Boulder Dam, Colorado,
circa 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.
New York City: Port of N.Y. Authority - Goethals Bridge.
Goethals Bridge, New York City,
circa 1940.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.
Dnieperstrai Dam, Russia: [Russian workers inside caisson, Dnieperstrai Dam(?)]
Dnieperstrai Dam,
Russia, undated.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

Shortly after the wedding, Life sent Bourke-White to England to photograph the country's preparations for war and then through Romania, Turkey, and the Middle East. When she returned to the States, she and Caldwell embarked on a cross-country reunion trip, working together to document American life and people. Life declined to publish the photographs, but the couple compiled them into a successful book, Say Is This the USA? Next they traveled around the world, stopping in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, where Bourke-White was the only Western photographer in Moscow when Germany attacked the city. As bombs rained down, Bourke-White and Caldwell hid from the wardens ushering residents to safety, and Bourke-White managed to make the only photographs of the attack, including a spectacular shot of the Kremlin illuminated as bombs exploded around it.

Back in the United States just after it entered the war, Bourke-White became the first female war correspondent accredited by the military. The deal LIFE Magazine negotiated with the Pentagon gave the magazine and the Air Force rights to any photographs she made. In 1942, she and Caldwell divorced after three years of marriage. She later wrote: "Now I could put personal problems behind me and get back to work."22

[Carl Spaatz, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right, in uniform]
USAF General Carl Spaatz,
between 1940 and 1948.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

Bourke-White spent months on an Air Force base in England, photographing maneuvers and traveling to London where she photographed King George, Winston Churchill, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. When she learned of secret plans to invade the North African coast, she requested permission to cover the Allied invasion. She got there not by plane, reserved primarily for high-ranking officers, but by boat, which came under torpedo attack. She escaped with others on a flooded lifeboat, photographing the harrowing ordeal with the one camera she managed to save. And she was granted permission to accompany and photograph a bombing mission. No woman had been granted this privilege before. 23

In 1943, Bourke-White recorded the war in Italy from the ground. Although she had survived torpedo and artillery attacks, she claimed she was never as frightened as she was on the front in Italy, crawling on the ground with mortar shells and enemy fire whizzing by. She left there in 1945 when she accompanied General Patton as his troops marched across Germany.

In Germany, Bourke-White barely recognized the prosperous country she had photographed just a few years earlier -- cities were destroyed and the people were defeated. This time, she photographed some of the most horrible scenes of the war: Nazi officials and their families dead by suicide, the liberation of the Weimar concentration camp, and a small Nazi work camp where the Jewish prisoners had been set on fire. She distanced herself from the horrors by concentrating on the act of making photographs; it was only when she developed her prints that she acknowledged the horror she had observed. Bourke-White's father was Jewish, something she kept secret from all but three or four friends.

After the war, Bourke-White continued photographing for Life. Her post-war stories reflected her social conscience. She spent more than two years in India, photographing the struggle between Hindus and Muslims. Her coverage of India's struggle for independence included one of Mahatma Gandhi on the day of his assassination in 1946, one of the most famous photographs ever made of him. Next she traveled to South Africa where she used her influence and persistence to gain permission to photograph not only the privileged lifestyle led by whites, but also the deplorable conditions of blacks under apartheid.

When she returned to the United States in 1951, Life capitalized on her love of heights by sending her eight miles into the sky to photograph the bomber planes of the Strategic Air Command. That fall, she was photographing a U.S. Navy helicopter practicing rescues when the chopper in which she was a passenger crashed into the Chesapeake Bay. She escaped with minor injuries, her courage unscathed.

Later Life

Photograph of polio poster; poster by Margaret Bourke-White showing crippled girl painting; from an exhibition of Polio Posters sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Fight infantile paralysis--
My fight isn't over, 1949.
Margaret Bourke-White, photographer.

In the politically charged climate of early 1950s America, conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote that Bourke-White was either a Communist or a Fellow Traveler.24 She tried to clear her name by photographing patriotic stories about the American troops on the front in Korea. She spent nine months there, traveling through the wilderness, surviving typhoons, gunfire, and ambushes, and photographing guerilla warfare. When she returned home in January of 1953, a powerful story she brought concerned a Korean family reunited with the son they had presumed dead for two years. She also did photographs for charity.

Although Bourke-White continued photographing for LIFE, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in early 1954. Despite physical therapy, by 1957, she could no longer photograph professionally. She fiercely fought Parkinson's for almost 20 years, enduring rigorous rehabilitation therapy and undergoing two risky brain operations to attempt to halt the progress of the disease. Unable to photograph, she worked from 1955 to 1963 on her autobiography Portrait of Myself. Bourke-White lost her battle against Parkinson's disease when she died on August 27, 1971.


Photograph shows Bourke-White perched atop American eagle-shaped gargoyle photographing New York City with a large format camera.
Margaret Bourke-White
atop the Chrysler Building,
between 1931 and 1934.
Oscar Graubner, photographer.

One of the most famous photojournalists of all time, Bourke-White blended the moral values her mother instilled in her along with her father's love of science and technology to live one of the most unique and daring lives in recent history. Her love of pictures took her from steel mills to battles abroad, but her continual conflict was to make pictures, when and where she wanted.

She was a great and tenacious photographer. Her work was her life, and her life was flamboyantly spectacular.


1 Margaret Bourke-White. Portrait of Myself. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985: vii, 12.

2 Robert C. Cottrell. Icons of American Popular Culture: from P.T. Barnum to Jennifer Lopez. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2010: 110.

3 Vickie Goldberg. Margaret Bourke White: A Biography. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing: 1987: 16.

4 Bourke-White, op. cit.: 20.

5 Cottrell, op. cit.: 110.

6 Goldberg, op. cit.: 13-14, 74.

7 Bourke-White, op. cit.: 26.

8 Goldberg. Op. cit.: 22, 29.

9 Bourke-White, op. cit.: 26.

10 Ibid.

11 Op. cit.: 30.

12 Goldberg. Op. cit.: 65.

13 Op. cit.: 35.

14 Goldberg, 101.

15 Julia Edwards, Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988:138; and Madelon Golden Schlipp and Sharon M. Murphy, Great Women of the Press. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983: 181-82.

16 Catherine A. Welch, Margaret Bourke-White: Racing With a Dream. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1998: 37.

17 Sir Arthur Newsholme and John Adams Kingsbury, Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1933.

18 Emily Keller, Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer's Life. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1996: 63.

19 ("Pictorial to Sleep," Time, March 8, 1937.) Note: ("Although Bourke-White titled the photo, 'New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam,' it is actually a photo of the spillway located three miles east of the dam," according to a United States Army Corps of Engineers Web page.[5] )

20 Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978: 184.

21 Bourke-White, Portrait: 172-3.

22 Bourke-White, Portrait: 197.

23 Bourke-White, Portrait: 228.

24 Robert E. Snyder, "Margaret Bourke-White and the Communist Witch Hunt," Journal of American Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1 (Apr., 1985): 10.

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2014. Last revised: 2015.

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