Margaret Bourke-White

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Margaret Bourke-White (14 June, 1904 – 27 August, 1971) was an American documentary photographer known as the first western photographer of Soviet industry and the first female photojournalist for Life magazine.

Early life

Margaret White was born 14 June, 1904[1] in the Bronx, New York[2] to Joseph White, and Minnie Bourke. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey, where she attended Plainfield High School. Her father was fascinated by cameras and encouraged Margaret's early interest in photography. She attended Columbia University, where she initially studied herpetology but later left the school. She tried several other schools and eventually graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1927 she added her mother's name and began going by the hyphenated name Margaret Bourke-White. In 1928 she moved to Cleveland, Ohio and started a commercial photography business, specializing in architectural and industrial photography. She experimented with using magnesium flares to illuminate scenes in a steel mill. The low sensitivity to red and orange light of early black and white films was problematic when shooting red-hot steel.


Margaret Bourke-White's innovative techniques of shooting steel mill interiors caught the attention of Henry Luce, who brought her to New York where he saw a fit for her with the magazine Fortune, a magazine of industry that would benefit from her talents.[3] So, after only one year, Bourke-White left commercial photography behind, taking a new job as associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine.[1] During this period she became the first Western photographer to photograph early Soviet industry. Her Russian photographs appeared in a book called Eyes on Russia published in 1931.[1]

During the 1930s she photographed people in the American south who were affected by the Dust Bowl. These photos were published in a 1935 article called Dust Changes America in The Nation.[1]

In 1936, she left Fortune to become the first female photojournalist for Henry Luce's new magazine, LIFE, in 1936.[1] She continued off and on in her roll as photojournalist for LIFE until 1957. She provided the cover photo for the first issue of LIFE magazine, a photo that was later commemorated as a US postage stamp. She is also known for establishing the first darkroom at the offices of Life magazine and has been called the "founding mother of LIFE".[3]

In 1940 she became the chief photographer for Ralph Ingersoll's magazine, PM.[1]

During the late 1930s and early 1940s Bourke-White traveled across Europe and Russia. She recorded conditions of life in Communist Russian and Nazi Germany.

World War II

When the world war broke out, Bourke-White became the first female war correspondent for the U.S. Air Force[1], covering the conflict in Russia before and after the German invasion. Her experiences and photographs were later published in a book called Shooting the Russian War. Some of her best known photographs were taken in 1945 at Buchenwald concentration camp.

She then traveled with the U.S. Army Air Force in North Africa before returning to Europe with the U.S. Army to Italy and Germany. Being in constant danger and frequently under fire, eventually earned her the nickname "Maggie the Indestructible". While traveling on the troopship SS Strathallan, she survived the torpedoing and sinking of the ship. She also survived a helicopter crash, strafing attacks by the Luftwaffe, even being stranded on an island.[2] After the war she published another book, titled Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly.

India and Pakistan

After the war she photographed the violence that went along with the partitioning of India and Pakistan. She took well known photographs of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. She interviewed Gandhi just hours before he was assassinated.

Parkinson's disease

In 1953 Bourke-White began exhibiting the early signs of Parkinson's disease. Over the next decade her career as a photojournalist slowly ended. Medical treatments and surgery helped improve her condition but left her with impaired speech. In 1963 US Camera magazine gave her a special Achievement Award and, in 1964 she was added to the honor rolls of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. She continued to write during the time, publishing an autobiography called Portrait of Myself. She died on 27 August, 1971 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.

Her equipment

Margaret Bourke-White used a variety of cameras during her career, ranging from simple box cameras to large aerial photography cameras. She is known to have used several types of view cameras and many 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses. Much of her photographic gear is preserved and documented in a collection of her materials at Syracuse University, allowing us to provide the following partial listings.[4]



Other equipment

  • Amigo Motorial tripod
  • Leica Meter, sn 36719
  • Weston Master III no 737 exposure meter
  • Quick-Set Senior tripod

Her photographs

Many of her photographs are now in museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. the remainder are divided between the Library of Congress and Syracuse University's collection, which includes manuscripts and other items in addition to photographs and negatives. Most of Bourke-White's works are under copyright and cannot be displayed here but the following example is from a series of photographs done in her position as war correspondent with the U.S Air Force and is in the public domain. See the Links section below for other websites that include portfolios of Bourke-White's most famous works.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Dictionary of Women Artists Volume 1, Bourke-White, Margaret, p 300 ISBN 1-884964-21-4 Google Books link
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Industrial Revelations of Margaret Bourke-White (archived)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gallery M: Margaret Bourke_White
  4. Margaret Bourke-White Papers, Syracuse University