Margaret Bourke White (June 14, 1904-August 22, 1971) was a famous American documentary photographer. She had many adventures covering both the United States and foreign countries.
Being the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry under the Soviet’s five-year plan was only one of her accomplishments. She also was the first American female war photojournalist. Soon Life magazine realized what a great asset she would be in providing photos to their magazine and so assigned her to cover many events during World War II.
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She grew up in the Bronx, New York. Her father was a non-practicing Jew and her mother was of Irish Catholic descent. From her father she learned “resourcefulness” and developed an unapologetic desire for self-improvement. However, being very restless she attended five different colleges including Columbia University, University of Michigan, Purdue University, Western Reserve University and Cornell University.
Margaret’s interest in photography began as a hobby in her youth. Her father encouraged her hobby for cameras and eventually this interest turned into a very successful career.
Moving to Cleveland, Ohio, she started a commercial photography studio and began concentrating on architectural and industrial photography. In 1924, she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced two years later. It was at this time that Margaret White added her mother’s surname, ”Bourke,” to her name in 1927 and hyphenated her name.
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In 1929, Bourke-White accepted a position as associate editor and staff photographer for Fortune magazine. She would stay only until 1935. She then was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first edition, dated November 23, 1936, and the photo was displayed on the cover of the magazine.
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During the mid-1930’s, she photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. Again, her photos were displayed in Life magazine.
Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were married from 1939 until their divorce in 1942. Yet, they collaborated on You Have Seen Their Faces, a book about conditions in the South during the Great Depression.
She also traveled to Europe to record how Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were faring under Nazism and how Russia was faring under Communism. While in Russia she photographed Joseph Stalin.
At the beginning of World War II, Bourke-White was the first known female war correspondent and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during the war.
As the war progressed, she was attached to the U.S. Army Air Force in North Africa, then to the U.S. Army in Italy and later in Germany. She reportedly came under fire in Italy in areas of fierce fighting.
In the spring of 1945, she traveled with General George S. Patton as Patton’s tanks traveled throughout a collapsing Germany. She took pictures as Patton’s army advanced and arrived at Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp. Her photographs of the camp where published in the United States.
In 1953, Bourke-White developed her first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She was forced to slow her career to fight encroaching paralysis. In 1971, she died in Samford, Connecticut, at the age of 67, the result of her Parkinson’s disease.