Margaret Bourke-White: A Snapshot Biography

Black and white photograph of Margaret Bourke-White smiling, with crossed hands and wearing a suit with a leaf-patterned brooch.
Margaret Bourke-White, 1955

Margaret Bourke-White was “Maggie the Indestructible” to colleagues at Life Magazine. It was a well-earned nickname for the brave photographer.

But while Margaret seemed to photograph everything and everywhere and did so with a fearless attitude, the work came with rigors and emotional challenges. “Sometimes I come away from what I have been photographing sick at heart, with the faces of people in pain etched as sharply in my mind as on my negatives. But I go back because I feel it is my place to take such pictures. To discover and disclose is essential, and that’s what stirs me when I look through the camera,” Margaret once said to a colleague.

For Margaret, hard work, doing what was right, and overcoming fear were all values instilled by her parents growing up. She would say, “Learning to do things fearlessly was considered important by both my parents. Mother had begun when I was quite tiny to help me over my childish terrors, devising simple little games to teach me not to be afraid of the dark, encouraging me to enjoy being alone instead of dreading it, as so many children and some adults do.”

The hard work example she would see in her father. “Father was the personification of the absent-minded inventor. I ate with him in restaurants where he left his meal untouched and drew sketches on the tablecloth. At home he sat silent in his big chair, his thoughts traveling, I suppose, through some intricate mesh of gears and camshafts. If someone spoke he did not hear. His ink rollers and pressure cylinders traveled with him even into his dreams. Mother, who understood him very well (but suffered through his silence: I can still hear her plaintive, I can still hear her plaintive, ‘If only Father would talk more.’), kept pad and pencil always by his bedside for those moments when he would wake for an instant, jot down some arcs and swirls, and fall back asleep. On Sundays, only his back was visible as he stooped over his drawing board.”

Her work as a photographer came into Margaret’s life a bit by chance. While attending the University of Michigan, she took a position as a photographer for the student yearbook. Her work there was highly praised. Shortly after, she told a professor, “I should like to be a news photographer-reporter and a good one.”

After graduating college, Margaret opened a small studio. She took on jobs photographing steel mills, a joy she credited to her father, saying, “I was sure my feeling of at-homeness with machinery was something I had absorbed as a youngster on those shining occasions when he had taken me through factories. My love for industrial form and pattern was his unconscious gift.”

Despite facing skepticism about her ability to withstand the harsh conditions of a steel mill due to her gender and the technical challenges of photographing in an environment with intense heat and light conditions that were not conducive to the black-and-white film of the era, Margaret demonstrated remarkable tenacity and ingenuity. She solved the problem of capturing the beauty of the steel-making process by using magnesium flares to produce white light, which allowed her to take some of the most iconic steel factory photographs of that time.

Margaret became known for her work photographing steel mills. And her photographs would also open the door to what would become a workplace for the rest of her career.

“HAVE JUST SEEN YOUR STEEL PHOTOGRAPHS. CAN YOU COME TO NEW YORK WITHIN WEEK AT OUR EXPENSE.” – Telegram from Henry Luce, which he signed, HENRY R. LUCE, TIME, THE WEEKLY NEWS MAGAZINE

Photographs were not yet an essential part of magazines. Henry Luce wanted to change that. He aimed to create a magazine in which, as Margaret wrote in her autobiography, “pictures and words should be conscious partners.” Henry invited Margaret to join the new magazine he was starting, Fortune.

“I feel as if the world has been opened up and I hold all the keys,” Margaret said upon arriving home from meeting Henry and hearing his vision. She accepted his offer and, in 1929, became the first foreign correspondent for Fortune magazine.

This position catapulted her into a groundbreaking role: she was the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union, capturing the industrialization under Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s. For Margaret, the experience was typical of one of her guiding life philosophies. As she would write, “Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.”

In 1936, Henry Luce invited Margaret to work for Life Magazine, a new photograph-focused publication he was starting. It was here that Margaret’s transition from photographing machines to people happened during an assignment photographing the impact of the mid-1930s drought from the Dust Bowl in the U.S. She wrote about the experience,

“I had never seen people caught helplessly like this in total tragedy. They had no defense. They had no plan.”

And,

“Suddenly it was the people who counted. Here in the Dakotas with these farmers, I saw everything in a new light. How could I tell it all in pictures? Here were faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair. These were faces I could not pass by.”

This newfound interest in photographing people became an essential part of her work shortly after when she took on assignments during World War II, in a role that also made her the first female war correspondent and the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. Here, her powerful images from the front lines, including the liberation of German concentration camps, brought the realities of war into the public eye like never before.

These images, however, were emotionally difficult for Margaret to take. She wrote about the experience,

“People often ask me how it is possible to photograph such atrocities. I have to work with a veil over my mind. In photographing the murder camps, the protective veil was so tightly drawn that I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw prints of my own photographs. It was as though I was seeing these horrors for the first time. I believe many correspondents worked in the same self-imposed stupor. One has to, or it is impossible to stand it.

Difficult as these things may be to report or to photograph, it is something we war correspondents must do. We are in a privileged and sometimes unhappy position. We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.”

She would continue photographing from conflict zones for many years after, taking the same fearless approach and philosophy.

At 49 years old, Margaret was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She kept the information a secret out of fear it would impact assignments that she might be given. Instead, Margaret began to exercise more and wake up earlier to give herself more time to get to places.

In hindsight, Margaret wrote that she wished she told people. “I found that many of my friends knew all about it – in some cases they knew more than I. They were distressed most by not knowing how to help me. I was surrounded by a wall of loving silence which no one dared to break through,” she wrote.

Margaret continued working for nearly two decades until retiring from Life Magazine in 1969. She passed away two years later.

Note:

Read a snapshot biography of Susanna Madora Salter, who became the first female mayor in the United States when she was elected in Argonia, Kansas, in 1887.

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