1 Photograph in Collection
(1904-)1971 United States
Works in Public Collections
Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Baltimore Museum of Art, MD; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,CA; Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Portland Museum of Art, OR
Life: Six Women Photographers, New York Historical Society, 2019
American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans and Bourke-White, Amon Carter Museum, TX; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL; and Colby College Museum of Art, 2011
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. 2003 (accompanying exhibition catalog)
Steel and Real Estate: Margaret Bourke-White and Corporate Culture in Cleveland, 1927-1929, The College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OH, 2000
An American Century of Photography, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1999
A Collective Vision: Clarence H. White and His Students, California State University, Long Beach University Art Museum, CA, 1985
American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans and Bourke-White, Sharon Corwin, Jessica May and Terri Weissman, University of CA Press, 2011
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936, Stephen Bennett Phillips, Rizzoli Press in association with the Phillips Collection, 2003
Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer, Sean Callaham, Little Brown, 1998
Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, Vicki Goldberg, Harper and Row, 1986
Born 1904 New York, NY
Died 1971 Stamford, CT
Margaret Bourke-White began her prodigious career documenting the power and energy of America’s industrial age, photographing the machines, factories and products that emerged from assembly lines and steel mills. During the 1930s she turned her attention to human subjects, focusing on labor and those who were suffering from the Great Depression. Thoughtfully constructing her photographs, she borrowed from the movement and staging of cinema, with dynamic compositions and dramatic lightning, Bourke-White captured an era of American life that was both aspirational and devastating.
Growing up in a household of what she would later describe as “free thinkers,” Bourke White was encouraged to take on photography as a hobby by her father who had an interest in cameras. Her formal education as a photographer began at Clarence White School of Photography in 1922 as part of her coursework at Columbia University. Clarence White was a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement and a close colleague of Alfred Steiglitz. White’s school was the first in the U.S. to teach photography as an art form. Her fellow students included Ralph Steiner and Paul Outerbridge. A few years in, she transferred to University of Michigan, joining the yearbook staff. She married briefly (1924-26) and moved with her husband, Everett Chapman, to Indiana where she continued her studies at Purdue University and then Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. The marriage ended in 1926 and Bourke-White ultimately received her undergraduate degree in 1927 from Cornell University.
After Cornell, Bourke-White moved to Cleveland and began commercial work shooting bridges and skyscrapers as well as the homes of businessmen. During the winter of 1927-28, she photographed the smokestacks and blast furnaces of the Otis Steel mill, selling eight of the hundreds of images she took to the president of the mill which he used in his 1929 report to stockholders.
It was this early work at Otis Steel that would set the foundation for Bourke-White's development as a photographer. She was reluctantly accepted inside the factory, an environment which was dirty and hot and not deemed appropriate for a woman, but Bourke-White persevered and was granted permission. She worked mostly at night when the factory interiors were very dark but she solved the problem by using lighting created for the cinema—setting magnesium flares that would burn for 30 seconds, enough time for an exposure. She was inspired by the aesthetics of industry’s scale and the power of the machines. Less interested at this time in the human story, figures are often diminutive and used to accentuate the huge industrial spaces.
The work at Otis Steel was recognized and soon Bourke-White was offered an assignment from N.W. Ayer and Son, a Philadelphia based advertising agency, to visit Ford’s River rouge plant, where she primarily shot inside the plant’s steel mill. Pouring The Heat, Ford Motor Co is characteristic of Bourke White’s signature style at this time. She employs theatrical lighting with the source illuminating from the back revealing silhouettes of the man, the machines and the geometrics of the factory. Bourke-White frequently uses the compositional tool of the diagonal line seen here in the wall behind the laborer that presses him forward. The lone worker bent, tipping his hat, appears almost in supplication to the machine in front of him. In this scene where the worker and the machine are merged together in one unified silhouette, there are no particular details to distinguish the man’s face or clothing and he becomes every worker.
This image was recognized as illustrative of this moment in American industrial growth and, as a result, was used widely. In 1930, the image was the cover for Trade Winds, the magazine of the Union Trust Co. of Cleveland. In 1932 the New York Times Magazine used it in an article on Ford Motor Co. above the caption “Mass Production and the Man—A Scene at the Ford Plant” and in November, 1934 it made the cover of Scientific American with the heading “Where Stainless is Born.” Clearly the image resonated and was used symbolically to describe the evolving relationship between man, machine and industry. Curator Sharon Corwin notes: Bourke-White proposed a type of industrial photography in which factory and machine could be made to represent the drama and power of modern America. (American Modern, p 109-110.)
Bourke-White’s success as a commercial photographer continued to grow and in 1929 she is hired to photograph the construction of the Chrysler Building. She moved from Cleveland to New York and in the same year became Fortune magazine’s first photographer. She worked at Fortune until 1936. It was a perfect match for Bourke-White who was able to illuminate the narrative that corporate America wanted to tell—a story of success, strength and productivity. In 1936 Henry Luce lured her to Life magazine where she accepted assignments through 1957.
Bourke-White's pictures were not just generating income but also opening doors to museum exhibitions and more ambitious assignments. In 1930 Bourke-White is the first western photographer allowed to visited the Soviet Union. Fascinated by the place and its people, she returned in 1931 and 1932. She published photos from those journeys first in Fortune and then in a book, Eyes on Russia (Simon and Schuster). In 1932 she is included in Modern Photographers at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and in Modern Photography at Home and Abroad at the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo. In 1937 Beaumont Newhall includes her work in his summary of the photography discipline to date, Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Her exposure to industrial and agricultural labor in the Soviet Union sensitized Bourke-White to the plight of the worker and she became interested in learning and telling their stories. In the United States at this time many were suffering from the ramifications of the Great Depression and Bourke-White began to question the role of photography and how it affirmed and exposed societal values. Prior to this, her corporate work often included labor, but those depictions were overshadowed by the aesthetic of the machine and the industrial setting. When in 1934 Fortune sent Bourke-White to document what was happening in farming communities during the Dust Bowl, there is a marked shift in her work. “when I was discovering the beauty of industrial shapes, people were only incidental to me…But suddenly it was the people who counted. Here in the Dakotas with these farmers, I saw everything in a new light.”
The Dust Bowl experience compelled Bourke-White to get involved politically. She subscribed to the Daily Worker, a communist run newspaper, and joined the American Artists’ Congress which was anti-Fascist, becoming the group’s vice chair in 1938. Bourke-White began to comprehend her power as an image maker and, in 1936, when she went south to document American tenant farmers, she was keen on creating a powerful narrative. She traveled with Erskine Caldwell, a novelist who she would later marry (1939-42). They moved through seven states hearing people’s stories and taking their pictures. They made a book of their journey You Have Seen Their Faces, 1937 which was a great commercial success in part because the stories and people were accessible. Bourke-White continued to construct her pictures—using dramatic lightening, often posing her subjects and taking the pictures in a manner than emphasized the narrative. Later Bourke-White's images would be criticized as exploitive but at this moment her approach was in keeping with the industry. She told individual’s stories in a way that was more cinematic than straight documentary.
As her success grew so too did her opportunities and during the Second World War Bourke-White returned to the Soviet Union. That body of work was published in a book, Shooting the Russian War (Simon and Schuster, 1943). As the war progressed, she accompanied the U.S. Army to North Africa, then to Italy and Germany. At the end of the war, she traveled with General George S. Patton through a devasted Germany and also took photographs at the horror that was Buchenwald.
A witness to events of great political and economic change, Bourke-White's images were sought after by magazines, publishers and museums. In the late 194os she documented the violence that erupted at the partition of India and Pakistan. In 1949 she was included in Photography (6 Women Photographers) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By the mid 1950s Bourke-White was forced to slow down as Parkinson’s disease affected her ability to move. In an effort to stop the tremors she had a number of operations but the disease continued to take its toll. In 1955 her work was included in Edward Steichen’s incredibly popular Family of Man exhibition and in 1956 she had an exhibition at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself was published in 1963 and became a bestseller. Eight years later she died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Her work today continues to be exhibited and discussed widely. She was among a handful of photographers, many of them women, who told the story of both America and the world during a time of tremendous change.