This post about Margaret Bourke-White has been in the works for quite a long time now. What happens when you give yourself too much time to think about a topic like that is that it soon becomes practically impossible to write. Margaret Bourke-White was already a legend when she was alive, and her legend has only continued to grow over the decades thanks to her impressive body of work and the innumerable books, articles, movies, biographies recounting some of her incredible exploits and string of firsts — according to Women in History:
She was a forerunner in the newly emerging field of photojournalism, and was the first female to be hired as such. She was the first photographer for Fortune magazine, in 1929. In 1930, she was the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. Henry Luce hired her as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine, soon after its creation in 1935, and one of her photographs adorned its first cover (November 23, 1936). She was the first female war correspondent and the first to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II, and one of the first photographers to enter and document the death camps. She made history with the publication of her haunting photos of the Depression in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, a collaboration with husband-to-be Erskine Caldwell. She wrote six books about her international travels. She was the premiere female industrial photographer.”
Well after all that, what is there left to say really? So I though I could tell the story of what it was like to discover photography through Margaret Bourke-White’s eyes.
When I was ten or eleven years old, my mom bought a book one day called “The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White”. We were living in Tel-Aviv and the year was 1980 when she made this purchase. On the cover was a black and white picture of two very old-looking ladies sitting on wooden chairs in front of a log house. They were both looking away from the camera out into the distance, they were wearing prairie dresses and aprons with an interesting mix of patterns, and their fine white hair, frail bodies, and heavily lined faces gave the impression they looked much older than they actually were. The portrait was taken in 1936 in Lansdale, Arkansas during the depression and it’s fair to say the two ol’ gals had probably lived through many hardships by then.
I still have the book among my treasured possessions as I write this, though it too has been through quite a lot over the years, so I treat it with care and don’t put it through the scanner and such, which prevents me from showing all those photos from the book which impressed me most in this post. The book had been purchased with the two of us in mind since my mother was probably aware that I had a budding interest in photography. She might have decided that Margaret-Bourke White was a fine place to start for an impressionable young lady as myself. Whether the infulence was calculated or not I often cite Bourke-White as one of my greatest inspirations in photography and design as well, so I’d say the book was a good investment.
How did this world-renowned pioneering (not to mention deceased) photographer come to be my own private tutor? Simple I spent hour upon hour poring through that book, observing each of her photographs and taking in every detail, trying to imagine what the locations looked like and what the people sounded like and how they moved, if there’d been much of an exchange between MBW and them or not. I don’t think I realized what I was doing, but I was essentially putting myself in the eye of the photographer, visualizing how each shot must have been taken. Even though I tended to be overly sensitive, I made myself look at her photographs taken in the concentration camps too trying to figure out what she was communicating to us. Living in Israel as we did, I was continually subjected to these kinds of images as they had been taken by the Nazis. Although most of them weren’t done with much artistry, it was simply part of the curriculum, which for me was exceedingly traumatic, and so I couldn’t help but wonder what more she was trying to tell us and where she found the courage to voluntarily go to hell on earth to take such photos. Of course, I didn’t realize then that those photos were news when they were released but I was divided between admiration for her for the incredible determination to share these images with the rest of the world, and the constant nagging questions “why didn’t she help them, how was she able to do this, didn’t she have feelings?” Ultimately I think I decided she must love humankind a whole lot to put herself in situations like that.
Every single of her photographs seemed to tell a story without ever seeming contrived. One sensed that she was trying to communicate so much more than what she had captured in the frame, but I couldn’t decide if she deliberately wanted to communicate so much or whether she deliberately put herself in situations which were so conflicted so that all she had to do was be an impassive observer. The latter seemed unlikely to me, because I sensed too much intelligence on the other side of the lens. With her portraits she seemed to have a compassionate eye, which rendered her photographs poignant, but never sentimental. Her subjects always retained their dignity, which is probably why viewers could follow her from the most enchanting to the most harrowing situations in the blink of an eye.
Having leafed through this book countless times through the years, I eventually began to feel that her photographs were part of my personal visual landscape. So much so that I sometimes caught myself barely seeing them anymore, much in the same way that a daily commute taken through the most interesting landscape eventually ceases to grab out attention. But I make the effort to look at her work with new eyes, because it’s just as relevant now as it was in the 30’s and 40’s. The Soviet Union might not exist anymore, but human nature hasn’t changed, it looks like we’ll be industrialized for a while yet, and extreme poverty is far from having been resolved. I’ve given up trying to take photographs the way Marget Bourke-White did. I’m into colours these days, but I think I did learn from her how to frame things with an eye for graphic lines and details, not be overly sentimental and to find unexpected angles. This is why if someone were to ask me where I’ve learned photography, I’d really have to say that Margaret Bourke-White taught me most of what I know.
Clinton, Louisiana “I don’t know what ever happened to the family that built this house before the War. A lot of families live here now. My husband and me moved in and get two rooms for five dollars a month.”
At the time of the Louisvilled Flood, 1937 “This photograph, probably the most famous of Bourke-White’s career, is of refugees lining up for supplies at an emergency relief station in the black quarter of Louisville.”