A Life Less Ordinary | Women's History Month | Smithsonian
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At a time when women were defined by their husbands and judged by the quality of their housework, Margaret Bourke-White set the standard for photojournalism and expanded the possibilities of being female. (Self-Portrait, 1943, Margaret Bourke-White, 19 1/8" x 15 1/4" Vintage gelatin silver print from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection) (Margaret Bourke-White)

A Life Less Ordinary

One of Life magazine's original four photographers, Margaret Bourke-White snapped shots around the world

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She photographed Gandhi minutes before his assassination, covered the war that followed the partition of India, was with U.S. troops when they liberated Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp, was torpedoed off the African Coast, had the first cover of Life magazine and was the first Western journalist allowed in the Soviet Union.

From This Story

Margaret Bourke-White, the iconic photographer, didn't just raise the glass ceiling; she shattered it and threw away the pieces.

At a time when women were defined by their husbands and judged by the quality of their housework, she set the standard for photojournalism and expanded the possibilities of being female.

"She was a trailblazer," says Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., who recently mounted a major touring exhibition of Bourke-White's photos. "She showed women that you didn't have to settle for the traditional role."

Bourke-White was fearless, doggedly determined, stylish and so flamboyantly unconventional that "her lifestyle has sometimes overshadowed her photography," Phillips laments.

She lived life her way, living openly with a married man, having affairs with others, putting career above husband and children. But 36 years after her death from Parkinson's, the titillation of her private life pales in comparison to her work.

"She was a photojournalist par excellence," says Phillips, "capturing the human drama, the human condition, in a way that few journalists had been able to capture."

Bourke-White was born in 1904 in New York City—16 years before the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote in national elections. Her mother, Minnie Bourke, was a homemaker who had trained as a stenographer; her father, Joseph White, an inventor-engineer-naturalist-amateur photographer who sometimes took his precocious daughter on visits to industrial sites. She would later write in her autobiography, Portrait of Myself: "To me at that age, the foundry represented the beginning and end of all beauty."

She started taking pictures in college (she attended several) using a second-hand camera with a broken lens that her mother bought for her for $20. "After I found a camera," she explained, "I never really felt a whole person again unless I was planning pictures or taking them."

In 1927, after shedding a short-lived marriage and graduating from Cornell University with a degree in biology, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, an emerging industrial powerhouse, to photograph the new gods of the machine age: factories, steel mills, dams, buildings. She signaled her uniqueness by adding her mother's maiden name to her own.

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