Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Margaret Bourke-White - inspirational photojournalist

When I think of photojournalism the person who comes to mind is Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971), the first female photographer at Life magazine, the first woman photojournalist on the ground in World War II, and an all-round remarkable artist. Her career was a perfect melding of three factors: remarkable talent, dedication to her craft, and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

She grew up at a time when photography was transitioning from a novelty to an art form, and as a child she was fascinated with cameras. Her father was a naturalist, and himself a photography hobbyist, and encouraged her curiosity about the world around her.

Still, when she enrolled in college at Columbia University she was there to study herpetology, not photography. But that changed within the first few weeks when she attended a photograph class. Sadly, she had to leave college after only one semester to deal with the death of her father and to help support her mother and younger brother.

Still, she was determined to earn her degree, and over the next several years, she took classes wherever she was -- Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio -- and eventually graduated with a  bachelor's in fine art in 1927. At first, she worked as general photographer, opening her own studio in Cleveland. She focused on architectural and industrial photography, where she refined her technique.

One of her greatest breakthroughs came while working for one of her biggest clients, the Otis Steel Company. She'd been commissioned to take photos of the factory during production, but the film at the time couldn't capture the color of red-hot molten steel, and all her images came out black. But she solved the problem by bringing some magnesium flares that gave off a bright white light, and had workers hold them to properly illuminate the hot steel.

Her work as a commercial photographer caught the attention of magazine publishers who were on the hunt for images to share. In 1929 she took a position as associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine. In that role she was allowed to travel for international news stories, and was the first Western photographer allowed into the USSR to take photos of their factories.

In 1936, she was hired by the publishers behind a brand new magazine, Life, where her work was a regular feature. In fact, she earned the cover photo spot in their first issue. During her time with Life, she continued traveling to cover important events around the world. When World War II broke out a few years later, she was already on the ground in Europe, making her the first woman allowed in combat zones there. When German forces invaded Moscow, she was the only foreign photographer there, making her images a valuable resource documenting the firefight.

When the US entered the war, she found a spot with troops in North Africa, Italy, and even Germany. She was there with General Patton when Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated and captured the gruesome scenes, the first time these types of horrors were so clearly illustrated for an American public.

After the war, she traveled to India to report on the violence as a result of the contentious partition of India and Pakistan. While there, she was able to interview Gandhi, and take an iconic photo of him at his spinning wheel, just a few hours before he was assassinated.

After an extraordinary career, in the early 1950s she developed increasingly debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease and eventually had to step back from her photography. Considering her seemingly natural ability to capture complex human truths in her photos, I have to wonder how she would have used her talents to document the civil rights and feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. Thankfully she was an influence on future generations of photojournalists as well as an inspiration women worldwide to pursue their dreams regardless of difficulty.

You can read more about her life and work in her Library of Congress biography.

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