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The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White Hardcover – Unabridged, September, 1972
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Margaret Bourke-White was an American photographer and documentary photographer. She is best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet Industry, the first female war correspondent (and the first female permitted to work in combat zones) and the first female photographer for Henry Luce's Life magazine, where her photograph appeared on the first cover.
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She was gutsy, dynamic, and no doubt to some, abrasive woman, who pioneered the photojournalism style, with an often compassionate heart. This book was completed, with her collaboration with Sean Callahan, a year before her death in 1971, from Parkinson's Disease. This book commences with a brief biography, and among other things I was unaware of, was that she was married, for three years, to the southern writer, Erskine Caldwell, of "Tobacco Road," "God's Little Acre," and numerous other books.
She started her career in Cleveland, in the steel mills. She had to evolve some new techniques in order to deal with the low lighting in the mills, but managed some excellent images of the days when America was self-sufficient in producing this vital commodity. She had a knack for capturing the geometric beauty in industrial processes, and structures. She was also famous for her pictures of the Chrysler Building when it was under construction. She, along with Dorothea Lange, may be better known for her Depression-era photos of southern tenant farmers, and a couple iconic ones, of Blacks standing in a bread line, with a billboard of a family of four happy whites, driving in a car, with the proclamation: "World's Highest Standard of Living," as well as one of a woman sitting on the steps of a mansion in Louisiana that had been divided up into a boarding house. She also photographed the recovery efforts of the New Deal; putting people back to work, building dams.
She traveled extensively overseas, taking images of the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the industrial efforts of the Soviet Union in the early '30's. So often in her career, she was at the right place at the right time (which, yes, requires elbows at times, at other times, prescience.) There are numerous quality images of Moravia, in what was once Czechoslovakia, in 1938. She entered Buchenwald, with the first American troops, and took another iconic image of burned bodies against the barbed wire. After the war she was a witness to the partition, with independence, of India, and took some of the very last images of Gandhi, a few hours before he was assassinated.
She also excelled at portraits, of the unknown, as well as the famous. There is the Henlein's, parents of the Nazi leader of the Sudenten Germans on page 122, and three women from the "Conversation Club" in "Middletown USA" on page 131. Of the famous, there are telling ones of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, along with Jawaharial Nehru. There is the flamboyant George S. Patton, and an almost smiling Stalin! There is one of Hermann Goring, in defeat, before his suicide, as well as another of Germans, just after their suicide.
Margaret Bourke-White made a major contribution to how we see the world, and this book is an excellent keepsake to that vision.
On her first trip to Russia in 1930 she photographed not only the industrial expansion of the Soviet Union but the lifestyle of the people and it is from this point in her career that she made the clear shift to being a photo journalist. During the Great Depression she documented the plight of migrant farm workers and sharecroppers. When Luce launched "Life" in 1936 Bourke-White formed the magazine's original photographic staff (along with Alfred Eisenstaedt, Peter Stackpole, and Thomas McAvoy) and her photo of the construction of Fort Peck Dam in Montana was the cover and lead article in the first issue. During World War II Bourke-White covered everything from the German attack on Moscow to Patton's push into Germany to the horrors of Buchenwald.
Bourke-White's work represents the height of the era in which photography was a recognized art form, by which I mean a time when photographs were hung on walls in the same manner as paintings. Her work, like the best of that period by her contemporaries, has a poster-like design. It is fascinating to read how her use of multiple flashbulbs helped her create a more realistic effect. "The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White," edited by Sean Callahan, provides 200 examples of her photographic art. Whether you consider yourself an aspiring photographic artist or are simply an interested neophyte such as myself, you will have a greater appreciation for both the artist and her art after devouring this book, which contains reproductions of her best and most famous monochrome images.