Margaret Bourke – White was an American documentary photographer. She studied under Clarence White, whose school was unique in the United States in being the only one devoted to teaching art photography and the principles of modernism.
She began working as an industrial photographer, producing a significant body of work for Otis Steel Company in Ohio in the late 20s. Her work came to the attention of publisher Henry Luce and in 1930, he hired her to photograph for Fortune magazine whose pages showcased the grandeur of industry and technology.
Luce also set up Life magazine and Bourke-White provided the cover shot for the launch issue. At this time she was setting the pace for industrial photography in the United States. She was the first westerner allowed into the Soviet Union to photograph.
During the Great Depression, she switched her attention to photojournalism, and in 1935 she documented a worker’s family Fortune. The following year, she collaborated with the writer Erskine Caldwell on an FSA project, a book of words and pictures on Southern poverty titled “You have seen their faces”.
Bourke-White had a firm belief in the camera’s ability to preserve democracy and photographed Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria during the rises of Communism and Nazism. In 1941, she and her husband travelled to Moscow in the belief that the war might spread there: when the Germans broke their non-aggression pact with Russia and invaded, she was the only foreign photographer in the city and became the first – ever female war correspondent.
In 1943, she became the first woman to fly on an American bombing in an attack on Tunis airport. In 1945, she accompanied General Patton through Germany in the final stages of the war and recorded the liberation of concentration camps at Buchenwald and Erla and the dreadful sights that awaited the Allied forces. She also photographed the suicides of German officials and ordinary families, panicked by the advancing visitors.
Whether by accident or design, Margaret’s success as a photojournalist come in part, from being in the right place at the right time. She also photographed Gandhi hours before his assassination. Her persistence, compassion and talent ensured that she was a woman of many firsts.
You can say that she lived a life that most photographers would dream of.