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Sunday, May 9, 2021

This week in women’s history: Margaret Bourke-White

By Isa Kaufman-Geballe

Margaret Bourke-White captured photographs with fearlessness, focusing her camera in on issues of war and industrialization during the mid-20th century.

Bourke-White achieved a lot of firsts for women in the photography and journalism industries. She was the first female photographer for Life Magazine and the first female and foreign war-correspondent accredited by the U.S Military.

Breaking through the walls of photojournalism

Margaret Bourke-White

Bourke-White was born on June 14th, 1904 in New York City. From a young age, she took up photography as a passion. She was inspired to become a photographer like her father had, following him on trips to take pictures of factories. Industry would stay a subject close to her heart later in her career.

She documented issues facing gender and industrialization. One of her most notable pieces was photographing The Otis Steel Company and the steel making process. She made a point of photographing women in industrialised professions as well. ”

She made it her mission to shatter the bias against allowing women inside the city’s steel mills,” according to the Library of Congress. In the Library of Congress, 550 of these images can be found.

Bourke White’s steel mill photos caught the eye of Henry Luce, the publisher of Fortune Magazine, who offered her position as an in-house photographer when she was 25. One of her first journalism assignments was traveling to the Soviet Union, and she became the first Western journalist to have access to Soviet hospitals and educational institutions from. She was there from 1930-33. Foreign journalists were strictly kept from entering these institutions.

Photographs she took were featured on the covers of Life, The New York Times, and other publications.

Eventually, she moved over to Life Magazine, also founded by Luce, who assigned her to photograph U.S involvement in WWII as a war correspondent.

Bourke-White’s documentation of WWII broke the barriers of journalism

Becoming a journalist of war isn’t just something you can do on your own accord. To have access to battlezones, the U.S military had to issue a photographer an official accreditation.

Survivors photographed by Margaret Bourke-White during The Liberation of Buchenwald, April 1945.

Bourke-White receiving this official rank was a major deal at the time. The negotiation of her contract as the first woman to be sent to photograph the warzone required that publishing rights would be reserved to Life Magazine and the U.S. Air Force.

She ventured from England to the Middle East documenting the realities of soldiers and civilian life. She also encountered the horrors, photographing concentration camps.

After the war

Burke-White would go on to focus more on photographing social issues within the U.S., though she also covered the Korean War.

A famous photo of Mahatma Gandhi by Margaret Bourke-White

Though photography was her life, Bourke-White became physically unable to take pictures due to her diagnose with Parkinson’s disease. She died in Connecticut on August 27, 1971.

Bourke-White’s life mission was to capture images that wouldn’t have otherwise been seen. Her contributions to the journalism and the war-correspondent field would build professional standards on capturing images to move the masses.

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