As the title of the work implies, Bourke-White’s autobiography is a portrait of a human being, not a history of photojournalism. The photographer recalls her wise and understanding mother, who, despite her lack of formal education, attended college at intervals until she died; her kind but silent father, who was so lost in his inventions that he would leave meals uneaten while he drew pictures on the table-cloth; and a brother and a sister who seem to have affected Bourke-White’s life so little that they are barely mentioned. Hers is a description of a childhood poised indecisively between happiness and gloom.
Bourke-White goes on to recount the series of accidents that led her into becoming a professional photographer. A number of unfortunate investments by her father left the family penniless at his death; one of the few possessions that she was able to salvage was a camera with a cracked lens. Consequently, with only an amateur’s knowledge of photography, she took pictures of the Cornell campus (she chose Cornell not for its academic excellence but because of the campus waterfalls), where she was then a student. To her amazement, she sold all the finished photographs very quickly, fuzzy and shadowy as they were, to her fellow college schoolmates; she was in business—for life, as it turned out.
A flair for the pictorial possibilities in industry led her to photograph, at great pains and danger to herself, the steel mills and furnaces near Cleveland. Determined early in her career to express the unique qualities that she saw in industry, Bourke-White spent months futilely shooting scenes inside the mill until she finally created an acceptable finished product by inventing new equipment. These early photographs came to the...
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Although not written specifically for young readers, Bourke-White’s Portrait of Myself is valuable to this audience because it provides a positive role model and demonstrates how, with drive and dedication, a woman can achieve a place of enduring fame in a historically male-dominated profession. Aside from keeping her mind off the debilitating disease that had stricken her, documenting this path to her hard-earned success appears to be Bourke-White’s purpose in writing the book.
By being in the right place at the right time, Bourke-White made a career out of a series of “firsts.” For example, during World War II, she covered the German attack on Moscow in 1941 and became the first Army Air Force woman photographer in action in North Africa and Italy. In 1945, attached to General George S. Patton’s Third Army, she was one of the first to enter concentration camps such as Buchenwald; her stark photographs incited worldwide outrage.
While other biographers of Bourke-White have pointed out a number of omissions in the photographer’s portrait of herself—her numerous affairs, her temper, her vengefulness, and her coldness and calculation—Bourke-White’s description of her own life and art stands as a testimony to a woman of remarkable strength and unquestionable talent.