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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