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When a new conservative government in South Africa imposed harsh restrictions on the native population, LIFE assigned Bourke-White to the story. Visiting a mine workers' compound on a Sunday, she happened upon their weekly dance exhibition where two especially spirited and photogenic dancers caught her eye. The next day, she asked the mine superintendent if she could photograph them at work. At first he resisted since the two worked in a dangerous area two miles underground, but Bourke-White prevailed.
What she found down there, however, shocked her and fueled a desire to create a portrait of racial injustice. The men moved in slow motion, weighed down by the over 100 degree heat, humidity and fetid air. At one point during the shooting session, Bourke-White nearly passed out and had to be taken to the edge of the shaft to be revived.
“I left the mine realizing that I had spent only four hours underground, and I would not have to return if my pictures were all right,” she wrote in her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). “But these men, who danced so gaily and happily in the upper air, were destined to spend the better part of their waking hours underground with no hope of escaping the endless routine.”
The miners’ portrait became the signature image of the story and one of the photographer’s favorites. Of it, Bourke-White biographer and photography critic Vicki Goldberg has written “...on some symbolic level these men represent the downtrodden who suffer but endure. The beauty of faces, bodies, light and texture and the composition of powerful forms testify to the photographer’s firm belief in the power of art and humanity.”
Former LIFE reporter and editor.
Buchenwald - 1945
Have You Seen Their Faces, 1937
Louisville Flood, 1937
Margaret Bourke-White worked for two major publications during her life, both of which now no longer exist in their original form. Her photography showed the people of America the world around them, in a time when television and instant communication did not exist. Through her work with Fortune magazine, she photographed landscapes, buildings, machines and complex shapes within industrial life. When she later worked for Life magazine, she photographed people enduring hardships and struggles within their lives, the brutality of war, and ever-changing faces of politics. Photography as a whole would not be what it is today without the life of pioneer and breakthrough photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
As a photographer for Fortune, Bourke-White shot top-view, distant, industrial photos that portrayed the early American hard working lifestyle. A terminal tower and steel mill in Cleveland, the First National Bank in Boston, and a limestone quarry in Indiana showed many Americans what life was like in other states, and gave a new perspective of their diverse land. "The purpose of art is to find beauty in the big things of the age. Today that big thing is industry," she said of her early works for Fortune.
She also took her first pictures abroad while working for Fortune. She traveled to Germany to photograph the Krupp Iron Works and to the Soviet Union to photograph Stalin and the Kremlin. One of my favorite photos shows a blast furnace under construction in the Soviet Union. The photo shows a cloudy sky at the top, then as you scan down the picture it gets more and more complicated, with scaffolding, cranes and wires creating a complex maze of shapes. The detail is amazing, and makes for quite a breathtaking scene.
Bourke-White changed her style of photography in 1936 when she started working for Life magazine. She left the industrial life behind and focused more on the who, what, and how of the people of the land. She covered World War II as the first woman photographer attached to the armed forces. She covered the siege of Moscow by the Nazis, and then when the war was over she crossed into Germany to photograph the emancipated inmates and the piles of corpses at the concentration camps. Her photographs stunned the world and made thousands aware of the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis.
One story about Bourke-White shows her true perseverance when working on a story. She was leaving India after saying goodbye to Mahatma Gandhi, a close personal friend, when she heard of his assassination. She rushed to his house where his family and welcomed her tearfully, but asked that she not bring her camera in. Incredibly, she smuggled a camera in and took a shot using a flashbulb, right before her friends threw her out. She then tried to get back in, hoping to get off another shot before she was thrown out again.
She took one of her most famous pictures, and arguably one of the most powerful, in 1937. Entitled "Louisville Flood Victims", it depicts a dozen or so black Americans standing in a bread line after a flood. The irony in the picture comes to the viewer when he or she reads the large billboard behind the line of people. The billboard shows a family of four white people and a dog, happily driving their car. Over top of the car it says, "Worlds Highest Standard of Living, There’s no way like the American Way." It almost looks like the white family is so ignorant that they might run over the blacks standing in line, not even acknowledging they exist. In reality, this was how the blacks were treated back in 1937, and Bourke-White does an excellent job of showing that blacks suffered social injustices and were not recognized for doing so.
In 1950, when the government in South Africa imposed harsh restrictions on the native population, Life assigned Bourke-White to cover it. She traveled to Johannesburg and photographed two African gold miners who posed for a picture during work. The workers wore miners hats with lights attached to the top and whistles around their necks. They were dripping sweat at a constant flow and they "moved in slow motion, weighed down by the over 100 degree heat, humidity and fetid air." Bourke-White was down in the mine for only four hours, but she nearly passed out at one point and had to be taken up to be revived. She realized that "These men…were destined to spend the better part of their waking hours underground with no hope of escaping the endless routine." The photo became the signature image of the story for Life, and one of Bourke-White’s favorite pictures.
Margaret Bourke-White’s photography remains powerful and influential to this day because it shows a broad spectrum of the history of our nation and world. At first they reflected mostly the industry, but then they reflected the people and the situations.
Both the feelings that she had and the feelings the people in the photos had were shown in every picture. Her focus gave her natural talent, and her natural talent gave her focus. "My life and my career was not an accident. It was thoroughly thought out," she said of her work.1 Many of the things she did 30 years ago would be tough for women photojournalists to accomplish today. Her philosophy on her work and the times is best summed up by one of her own quotes. "This is a big wonderful world and people, especially artists, should grow in it because artists show others the world." - - - By Austin Hendrix
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