Margaret Bourke-White Additional Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneering news photographer who helped develop and define the field of photojournalism.

Early Life

Margaret Bourke-White was born June 14, 1904, in the New York borough of the Bronx, the second in a family of three children. Bourke-White’s father, Joseph White, was an engineer and inventor, and her mother, Minnie (née Bourke), was trained as a stenographer. The White children were reared in a strict but loving household. Joseph and Minnie White encouraged their children’s curiosity about the natural world and strove to instill in them the values of determination and hard work. Margaret later remembered that her mother taught her to “never take the easy path.”

When Margaret was a small child, her family moved to Bound Brook, New Jersey, where she attended public schools. She later attended Plainfield High School, where she served as yearbook editor and, as a sophomore, won a school literary competition—activities that highlighted her talent for writing. Upon graduation from high school in 1921, she attended Columbia University for one semester, during which she took a photography course. She left school after her father died in 1922, but returned to college the next year after winning a scholarship to study at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

At the University of Michigan, Margaret met Everett Chapman, a doctoral candidate in engineering. They were married in the spring of 1924, and she accompanied her husband when he obtained a teaching position at Purdue University, where she also attended classes. When her marriage to Chapman failed in 1926, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to study natural sciences at Western Reserve University. She completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1927. While at Cornell, she was unable to find suitable employment to support herself, and instead earned money by selling prints of her dramatic, artistic photographs of campus buildings. Her photographs were very popular with students and alumni and sold briskly. After the failure of her marriage, she was determined to make something of herself, and although she had never before considered photography as a profession, her success at Cornell convinced her to pursue a career in photography.

Life’s Work

Soon after her graduation from college, Margaret Bourke-White returned to Cleveland, where she opened the Bourke-White Studio in 1927. (She began using her mother’s maiden name together with her own maiden name after her marriage to Chapman ended.) She continued to pursue architectural photography, but was especially fascinated by machines and industry. She saw endless artistic possibilities in photographing the skyscrapers, smokestacks, derricks, and titanic machinery of industrial Cleveland. She made a name for herself after producing a stunning series of photographs of the steelmaking process for Otis Steel Mills. On the strength of those photographs, she received numerous other industrial commissions.

Her work caught the attention of Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine. Luce was also interested in telling the story of American industry in immediate, visual terms, and in 1930 launched Fortune magazine to do just that. An associate showed Luce some of the remarkable steelmaking photographs taken by a “girl photographer” in Cleveland, and Luce was so impressed that he brought Bourke-White to New York and offered her a position as Fortune’s first staff photographer.

Bourke-White was happy to accept. She moved her studio to the newly opened Chrysler Building in Manhattan and split her time between assignments for Fortune and more traditional commercial and advertising photography. She traveled around the country for Fortune, producing a visual record of American industry—from steel and aluminum plants, to coal mines and quarries, to the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of the Midwest. Her eye for composition and her sense of drama made the dirt and smoke of heavy industry appear strangely beautiful in her photographs. Throughout this early period in her career, her work emphasized the gigantic scale of the machinery, construction, and output of American business. Fortune also sent her to photograph the rapid industrialization of the new Soviet Union under Stalin’s 1928 Five-Year Plan. Bourke-White’s were the first photographs to emerge from that country since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. She returned to the Soviet Union twice in the 1930’s, and produced a book, Eyes on Russia (1930), and a series of articles for The New York Times about her experiences there.

Yet the focus of Bourke-White’s work started to shift away from machines and industry as a more compelling subject presented...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)