Machine Dreams

A new exhibition reconsiders the industrial photographs of Margaret Bourke-White's early, "rapturous" period

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Before Margaret Bourke-White became a celebrated photojournalist whose Life magazine pictures memorably chronicled the world’s flux at mid-century—a breadline after a Kentucky flood, General Patton as he prepared to cross the Rhine, Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel—she specialized in oddly compelling and sometimes ominous photographs of industrial settings.

She took the photograph in 1935 at a vast American Woolen Company mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the machinery, as she depicted it, seemed to march in perfect rows right past the diminutive workers and into the oblivion of the U.S. economy. She was 31, on assignment for Fortune magazine, and still in the grip of what she would later call the "rapturous period" when she was "discovering the beauty of industrial shapes" and "people were only incidental to me."

The picture is one of 172 featured in Stephen Bennett Phillips’ new book, Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936 (Rizzoli), which is also the name of an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., on view until May 11 before traveling around the country. Phillips, a curator at the gallery (and no relation to its namesake), has assembled for the first time the architectural and corporate works that Bourke-White produced during the initial decade of her career. Her lush photographs of stacked copper pipes, massive piles of braided steel cable and shining plow blades are among those that Phillips says "captured beauty in a world not usually perceived as beautiful."

Since her death at 67 in 1971, Bourke-White has been the subject of biographies, critical studies and even a 1989 movie starring Farrah Fawcett. Despite such fame (or perhaps because of it), Bourke-White has a mixed reputation among photography critics, some of whom complain that her work is too slick. Phillips hopes his new look at Bourke-White’s formative years will confirm her place among the century’s top photographers. "Some critics feel that Bourke-White wasn’t an artist because she never shot anything that wasn’t a photo assignment. But these early photographs show her control of design and composition."

Born in the Bronx, New York, to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White, Margaret graduated from Cornell University in 1927 and the next year opened a studio in Cleveland’s new Terminal Tower, which she photographed extensively. Among her clients were the Otis Steel Company—she photographed a silhouetted steelworker amid a hail of sparks on the smelter floor—and an electric company. But she decamped in 1930 to Manhattan to document construction of the Chrysler Corporation’s landmark building, which would briefly reign as the world’s tallest. She even lived there in a penthouse—until evicted in 1934 for not paying the rent.

Her Life career began with Henry Luce’s first issue, in 1936. Her photograph of the looming Fort Peck Dam in New Deal, Montana, graced the cover, and inside, her word and picture story about the community that had sprung up around it was hailed as the first of a new kind of photo-essay. During World War II, Bourke-White was among the first female war correspondents accredited by the U.S. military, and was sent to England to cover bombing raids over Germany and to Moscow to photograph Stalin as Luftwaffe bombs fell on the city. After the war, she traveled widely, covering disparate subjects such as the Korean War and the poverty and danger endured by gold miners in South Africa. In Korea Bourke-White, then 48, began to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She retired from Life in 1969.

Bourke-White’s magazine photographs, though often snapped on deadline (and disparaged by one critic as "hyperemotional"), are notable for their graphic strength, says Michelle Delaney, a photography specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History: "The work that appears in Life would be considered art photography, in my opinion."

One of the 12 photography books authored or coauthored by Bourke-White is 1949’s Halfway to Freedom, about India at the time it gained independence from Britain. She deplored the caste system, and her pictures captured the plight of so-called untouchables, India’s lowest social class. And she said India would benefit from industrialization. "A machine cares nothing about a man’s ancestors," she wrote. "It does not feel polluted by his touch, knows no prejudice."

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