As humans we are conditioned to be more responsive to the visual. Hearing about something and seeing it evoke two completely different emotions. How many times have you been telling your gal pals a story and caught yourself saying ‘girl, you had to be there?’ Thanks to the fearless souls known as photo-journalists, we are able to better understand and experience second-hand the happenings around us whether in the past or present. Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was on the forefront of photo-journalism. Nobody, not even Margaret, expected a girl from the Bronx to become one of the most important players in the history of news. Forget Larry King, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, and Katie Couric. They only report the news. Margaret was on the front line taking the photos that appear in magazines, textbooks, and museums. Without her, the aforementioned journalists would be in the unemployment office with the rest of us.
As a child Margaret had an affinity for nature. Her father was a naturalist and it rubbed off on his daughter. Joseph White was also a camera enthusiast. For Margaret, nature and animals took precedence over photography. In 1922, she entered Columbia University as a herpetology student. Her interest in photography was aroused one more while at Columbia. One of her electives was a course in photography taught by Clarence White. She ended up leaving college after a semester because of the unexpected death of her father. She eventually returned to her studies and graduated from Cornell University in 1927. A year later she moved to Cleveland, Ohio where she opened a photography studio.
Margaret finally stumbled onto the path to her purpose in 1929. It was the year she entered the publishing/reporting business as associate editor and staff photographer for Fortune magazine. Withing a year she was performing better than her male colleagues. As a result of her performance, she was assigned to travel to the Soviet Union in 1930. She was the first Western photographer allowed to take pictures on Soviet soil.
At this point in Margaret’s life she was on cloud 16. I can’t imagine the pride she felt and the pride her parents felt as well. They had always strived for perfection and pushed their children to achieve as much as possible in their lifetimes. Little did Margaret know that cloud 16 was only a pit stop. Going up!
In 1936 she was hired by Henry Luce. Luce has just purchased Time magazine and wanted Margaret to be the first female photojournalist for the publication. She was the official staff photographer until 1940, but she returned to the magazine periodically until 1957. She fully retired from photography in 1969.
Post-Life magazine, Margaret’s list of firsts continued to grow. She became the first woman accredited by the Unites States Army as a war correspondent. She was also one of the first photographers allowed to take her camera into Nazi death camps. The greatest of Margaret’s honors came immediately after World War II. She was sent to India where she snapped images of and interviewed Mahatma Gandhi reportedly hours before his assassination.
In 1953, Margaret’s health began to fail. She began to develop symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. To attempt to cure her condition, Margaret underwent multiple brain surgeries from 1959 to 1961. Her symptoms were cured but her speech was never the same. She passed away at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut in 1971.
Image Layout: Phaymiss
- Art HERstory: Louise Dahl-Wolfe
- Art HERstory: Nancy Holt
- Art HERstory: Emma Amos
- Art HERstory: Sandy Skoglund
- Art HERstory: Dorothea Lange