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The Margaret Bourke-White Gallery

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Margaret Bourke White, Photo Journalist, 1906-1971

A Bourke Biography

Another Bio

Gallery I

Gallery II

Gallery III

Gallery IV

Gallery V

Gallery VI

Margaret Bourke-White Books


Only by his action can a man make (himself/his life) whole . . . .
You are responsible for what you have done and the people
whom you have influenced.

Usually I object when someone makes overmuch of men's work versus
women's work, for I think it is the excellence of the results which counts.


Born Margaret White on June 14, 1906 in New York, NY, she later added her motherís maiden name, Bourke to her surname. The daughter of an engineer-designer in the printing industry, she graduated from Cornell University in 1927, after attending three other universities as well. She began her career as an industrial and architectural photographer, and soon was noticed by Henry Luce, who was starting up his new magazine called Fortune. Her job at Fortune led her to be hired as one of the first photographers at Life magazine in 1936. She photographed the Fort Peck Dam for the cover story of the first issue of Life magazine. Bourke-White also did a number of photo-essays with southern novelist Erskine Caldwell, one of her two husbands. She photographed for Life until Parkinsonís disease forced her to retire in 1969. She died on August 27, 1971 in Stanford Connecticut.

Margaret Bourke-White attended several universities throughout the United States while pursuing a degree in Herpetology (the study of reptiles). They included Columbia University in New York, the University of Michigan, Purdue University in Indiana, Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and she received her degree in 1927 from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Margaret began to study photography as a hobby while a very young woman. She developed the styles and techniques that she needed for various formats on her own. Her father was also somewhat of a camera enthusiast and he exposed her to the wonders of the photographic lens as a youngster.

Margaret's father, Joseph White, was of Polish-Jewish background. He was an inventor and an engineer. He believed in equality in education and opportunity for all his children. Margaret's mother, Minnie Bourke, was of Irish-English ancestry and was a loving and nurturing mother. Minnie was completing her college degree at the time of her death. Margaret was married twice; once to Everett Chapman, when she was but 18 years old; and to Erskine Caldwell, the writer, in 1939, after they had worked together. They divorced in 1942.

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War correspondents . . . see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.


The beauty of the past belongs to the past.

Margaret Bourke-White is a woman of many firsts. 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 as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine, soon after its creation in 1935, and one of her photographs adorned its first cover. 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, getting her start in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Otis Steel Company about 1927.

Margaret Bourke-White - "I WANT TO BECOME FAMOUS"

Margaret Bourke-White hurried to her lifeboat and stood in line. For the first time in her life she was truly afraid. As her lifeboat descended to the water, swinging back and forth, she looked up and saw the ship silhouetted against the night sky. In the moonlight the ship's deck "tilted like a silver tea tray." Margaret imagined the dramatic photographs she could have taken if there had been enough light. "I suppose for all photographers, their greatest pictures are their untaken ones," she later wrote, "and I am no exception. For me the indelible untaken photograph is the picture of our sinking ship viewed from our dangling lifeboat."

The sinking ship Margaret left behind was a troopship bound for North Africa in 1942 during World War 11. Margaret was covering the war for Life magazine, as well as for the United States Armed Services as its first woman photographer. She had been in England photographing the crews of the Flying Fortresses, the B-17 aircraft on loan from America. These squadrons had been sent to England to bomb German war factories and troops. But what Margaret longed for most of all was to go on a bombing mission herself. Male correspondents were allowed to go, but not women. A rumor spread that the Allies (America, Great Britain, France, Russia, Canada and the countries allied with them) were going to invade North Africa where German forces had overrun large areas. Margaret wanted to go, too, and take pictures. General Jimmy Doolittle, commander of the 12th Air Force, gave her permission. However, he would not let her fly to the destination. It was too risky. Instead he sent her on a troopship in a convoy along with British and American nurses, and the first five WACS (Women's Army Corps) sent overseas.

The convoy sailed into a heavy storm. Waves sixty feet high hit the ship. Sofas flew through the air, injuring passengers. Most everyone on board suffered from seasickness except Margaret. The captain ordered all passengers, sick or well, to go through daily lifeboat drills. They packed and repacked their emergency bags. Margaret stuffed hers with a Rolleiflex (a small camera), her big old telephoto lens that she had used for making portraits of world leaders, and film, leaving five other favorite cameras behind. Then, a couple of days before they were due to reach North Africa, she heard the ship was being followed by German submarines. At 2: 10 A.M. on December 22, their ship was hit by a torpedo. The impact was so great that Margaret fell out of her bunk. Quickly she and the Scottish nurses sharing her cabin yanked on their clothes, tore curlers out of their hair, slipped on their helmets, grabbed their emergency bags, and raced to the top deck. The order came to abandon ship.

Before it even reached the ocean, Margaret's lifeboat was full of water. The splash from the torpedo had flooded it. Margaret hugged her bag to her chest hoping to keep her camera dry. More water poured into the boat from the one swaying directly above. When Margaret's lifeboat hit the sea, waves pushed it back toward the ship where it would be squashed. The stewards rowing the lifeboat strained on the oars while Margaret and the other women bailed water with their helmets. Slowly they pulled away from the sinking ship. Nearby, in the dark sea, fellow passengers and crew who had jumped from or been tossed from the ship, started swimming frantically toward empty rafts that had been thrown overboard. Many people drowned. One nurse jumped from the ship's ladder into a lifeboat and crushed her back. Margaret's boat picked up a girl with a broken leg, then nine soldiers floating by on rafts. After a while in the moonlight, everyone in the lifeboats began singing, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine." The tension and fear were broken as everyone tried to make a bad situation better. People joked and told stories. Margaret found a pen and pad of paper in her coat pocket and made notes. Her boat drifted away from the others. "A feeling of loneliness came upon us," she later recalled.

In the early morning light, Margaret reached for her camera and took pictures. Soon she heard a hum in the sky. Overhead a British plane flew by and the survivors III the water waved. Margaret happily photographed her fellow survivors waving and laughing. A few hours later a destroyer rescued them, and that night they arrived in the North African country of Algiers. In February 1943, Margaret's pictures and text, "Women in Lifeboats," appeared in Life.Ö..


If you banish fear, nothing terribly bad can happen to you.


Books by Margaret Bourke-White:

  • You Have Seen Their Faces, 1937 with Erskine Caldwell

  • North of the Danube, 1939 with Erskine Caldwell

  • Shooting the Russian War, 1942

    They Called it "Purple Heart Valley", 1944

  • Halfway to Freedom; a report on the new India, 1949

  • Portrait of Myself, 1963

  • Dear Fatherland, rest quietly, 1946

  • The Taste of War (selections from her writings edited by Jonathon Silverman



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