How was Margaret Bourke-White different?

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was already an established photographer before the Depression hit. By the early twenties, she had established a national reputation for her striking architectural and industrial images. She did free-lance advertising photography and was one of the first photographers to work for Fortune, beginning in 1929. Her New York studio, high in the Chrysler Building, was the height of Art Deco elegance - complete with aluminum panels, frosted glass, and a live alligator in a tank (Sternsher 96).

But in 1935, Fortune sent her to photograph the Dust Bowl. She was shaken from her complacency. In her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, she wrote, "Here were faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair. These were faces I could not pass by" (Sternsher 98). She recounted that in a nightmare she was chased by the Buicks she had photographed for glossy advertisements; they tried to crush her, to swallow her whole. "I could never again face a shiny automobile stuffed with vapid smiles" (Sternsher 98). She turned from advertising to documentary photography.

She had been a photographer of buildings, and many of her Depression era images reflect her familiarity with architectural landscapes rather than portraiture. But she began to focus her lens more and more on those people whose faces she could not ignore. In 1936, she became one of the first staff photographers for the newly launched Life. Most importantly, however, she began a project with writer Erskine Caldwell in 1935 which would become the influential You Have Seen Their Faces (1937).

After the Depression, Bourke-White's commitment to social documentary photography continued, taking her to the front in World War II. She accompanied American troops in North Africa and Italy, witnessed the German siege of Moscow, was with the Americans advancing into Germany,, and was one of the first to enter the Nazi death camps. Her image of inmates at Buchenwald, staring out through barbed wire, is one of the most enduring images of the concentration camps. There are thousands of images more harrowing, but part of the power of this image lies in the fact that "it suggests more horror than it depicts," according to Vicki Goldberg. She continues, "I suspect that this photograph has become a historical marker partly because it presents a level of pain that is just within the range of tolerance" (Goldberg 37).

Margaret Bourke-White continued her documentary work after the war, as well, shooting photoessays in India (including famous portraits of Mohandas Gandhi), South Africa, and Korea (during the Korean War). She trekked the globe with her camera until Parkinson's Disease brought her career to a halt in the mid-1950s.


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