“Work is something you can count on, a trusted, lifelong friend who never deserts you.”
Before the invention of television and instant communication, Americans saw the different faces of world, from despair, desolation, distress, depression to battles of World War II and inside its refugee camps, from the freedom movement of India to the mass migration. This was only possible through the photographs and work of Margaret Bourke-White.
Margaret Bourke-White born on June 14th, 1904 in Bronx, New York was an American photographer who is recognized as the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures in Soviet Union, the first female war correspondent and the first female photographer for Life Magazine.
Margaret White grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey and was always interested in photography. She graduated from Plainfield High School. In 1922, she started studying herpetology at Columbia University but then she transferred colleges several times. In 1927, Bourke-White graduated from Cornell University with her B.A. Later, she started her commercial photography studio and started as a freelance architectural and industrial photographer in Ithaca, New York.
She hyphenated her mother’s maiden name, Bourke with her name in 1927. In 1929, she was hired as a photographer for the Fortune Magazine. In 1930, she became first western photographer allowed taking photographs in Soviet industry.
In 1936, when Life publication started its publication she became its first female photojournalist. Her photographs of Fort Peck Dam appeared on the first cover of Life Magazine. In mid-1930’s she photographed Dust Bowl drought victims.
In 1935, Bourke-White met Erskine Caldwell, whom she was married to from 1932 to1942. They work together on an illustrated-book “You Have Seen Their Faces” in 1937. This book is a graphic portrayal of America’s desperately poor rural under-class. In 1939, they produced “North of Danube”, about the life in Czechoslovakia after the Nazi takeover. In 1941, the couple’s third collaboration “Say, Is This the U.S.A. was published. This book is about the industrialization in U.S.A.
In 1941, Margaret Bourke-White became the first female war photographer, working for both Life Magazine and U.S. Air Force. She survived a torpedo attack while on a ship to North Africa that she recorded in an article, “Women on Lifeboats”, in Life, 1943.
During the freedom movement of Indian Sub-Continent, Bourke-White became known in India and Pakistan for photographing Gandhi at his spinning wheel and Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, upright in his chair. She witnessed and photographed the mass migration. Streets dumped with corpses, trains filled with burnt dead bodies, broken heart, lost and miserable refugees with vacant eyes are the heart shattering shots by Bourke-White. “Bourke-White’s photographs seem to scream on the page,” – Somini Sengupta.
She also covered Korean War and travelled with South Korean troops. According to Bourke-White, she took her best shot there – a returning soldier meeting his mother, whom his mother thought had died several months earlier.
In 1953, Margaret Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She had to slow down her career to shun a chance of paralysis. She spent eight years writing her biography, “Portrait of Myself”, published in 1963. She passed away in 1971, at Stamford Hospital, in Connecticut, at the age of 67.
She received many awards and honorary degrees for her work including honorary doctorates from Rutgers University in 1948 and from University of Michigan in 1951. She was awarded US Camera Achievement Award in 1963 and Honor Roll Award from American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1964. Bourke-White was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project in 1997.
She published 12 books including Eyes on Russia, You Have Seen Their Faces, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, Portrait of Myself and Interview with India.