spaceinvaderjoe's history blog

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Month: June, 2012

Female Badasses in History: Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)


Margaret Bourke-White was the first female war correspondent of the 20th century and after Kit Coleman the second female war correspondent in the English-speaking world as well as the first female photographer for Life where one of her pictures was featured on the first issue of the magazine. She produced some of the most iconic images of the 20th century including her extensive coverage of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the first pictures taken by a Western photographer of Soviet industry, the shot of Ghandi and his spinning wheel, and the beheading of a prisoner in the Korean war.

Margaret Bourke-White was born Margaret White in 1904 in New York City to a family of Irish descent. Her interest with photography began early on due to her father having photography as a hobby. Despite her interest, she started studying herpetology at Columbia University in 1922, only to leave after one semester. She transferred colleges several times, especially after the death of her father in 1923 and graduated in 1927 from Cornell University with a B.A. in Photography leaving behind one of the best known photographic studies of the campus and its surroundings as her graduating works.

Margaret originally began working in commercial photography, opening her own studio but in 1929 she accepted a job as a photo editor for Fortune magazine. At the time Soviet-US relations were thawing and steps were taken to advance mutual understanding. Margaret saw an opportunity in this and started lobbying to have Fortune give her the opportunity to go to the USSR to get a photo reportage. In 1930 she became the first Western photographer taking pictures of the Soviet Union.

Due to her outstanding work she was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936. Her picture of the Fort Peck Dam construction appeared on its first cover on November 23, 1936. She held the title of staff photographer until 1940, but returned from 1941 to 1942 and again in 1945, where she stayed through her semi-retirement in 1957 (which ended her photography for the magazine) and her full retirement in 1969.

Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such a favorite that it was the 1930s’ representative in the United States Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps.

During the 1930s she also covered the Dust Bowl and its vicitms in the US as well Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia under Nazism and the USSR. While in the Soviet Union, she photographed a rare occurrence, Joseph Stalin with a smile, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt when visiting Georgia.

During the Second World War she was the first female war correspondent allowed to cover front combat zones. She was present as the only foreign journalist in Moscow when the Germans began attacking the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and took several iconic photographs of the ensuing fire storm after the German attack.

Later she was attached to the US forces fighting in Italy and Germany. During that time she earned the nickname “Maggie the indestructible”. She had been on ships that had been torpedoed, strafed by the German Luftwaffe, shot at by the German army, on a sinking ship and subsequently stranded on an Arctic island, and been in a plane crash.

In the spring of 1945 she traveled with Patton’s army when they came across the Buchenwald concentration camp. Some of the most iconic picture with which we remember the Holocaust by are shot by her, including one of a German woman being led through the camp and turning her eyes from a pile of corpses. She said about her experience there: “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.”

After the war Margaret Bourke-White first covered the Indian-Pakistani division where she took the famous picture of Ghandi at his spinning wheel and shortly afterwards the Korean war where she took the iconic picture of the beheading of a POW summing up all the brutality of the conflict in one picture.

At the end of the war in 1953 she started to show the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, an illness she would fall victim to 10 years later in 1963.


Margaret Bourke-Whit can not only be remembered for her iconic photos but also for her courage and pioneer role for women in journalism. Especially in light of Marie Colvin’s recent death, it is important to remember women like that who put their lives and well-being on the line to keep the public informed and further understanding of conflicts.


Pop-culture history: Les Miserables: The Dream lives?

This year around Christmas Universal will release its movie adaptation of the musical Les Miserables. The description of the movie reads as follows: “Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.“ While true, this description sums up the problems of almost all adaptations of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece of romantic French literature. Les Miserables is not just a collection of stories about love, redemption, and passion – it is scolding political commentary and agitation against social injustice and the French monarchy (and in extension of this against undemocratic Regimes) and a tribute to the students and fighters for a republican government who fought and died in the July Revolution of 1832.


Victor Hugo born in 1802 was a monarchist in his younger years. Under the impression of the social misery and poverty so rampant in Paris in his day, Hugo turned to republican politics. He saw the establishment of a French Republic under a government that would care about the poor, infringed, and neglected as the only way of progress. After being caught up in the events of the July Revolution, which he describes in Les Miserables, and because of his already considerable fame in the 1830s (mainly due to his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame – another story of social outcasts and injustice), he planned to write a grand story about the misery so rampant in France. It should take him 30 years to finish.

He also participated in the 1848 Revolution in France and afterwards became a parliamentary in the freshly established Second French Republic. His main political issues were social injustice, the abolition of the death penalty, and the freedom of the press. With the coup d’etat by Napoleon III and the subsequent anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo went into exile in Great Britain. Here he not only wrote several anti-Napoleonic pamphlets but also finished Les Miserables.

In its original French version about 1900 pages long, the book was intended by Hugo as a criticism of France’s monarchic past as well as its present. Long passages in the book consist of Hugo’s examination of topics such as law and moral, social justice, Paris architecture, religion, the idea of justice, politics, and finally the nature of love. The characters a vividly written as they are and their stories as beautiful and well-planned as they are, are also vessels for Hugo’s message that in today’s terms could be described as liberal – he opposes the monarchy, he wants to show the impact of social injustice, stigmatization, and oppression on people and pleads the case for a more just and republican France. He strongly favors liberal politics and glorifies the students and their uprising against the French monarchy and its system of political and social injustice. Even the main character, Jean Valjean, convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving siblings, is transformed from a man who just wants to lead an honest live after his unduly conviction to a political player and almost revolutionary trying to change the world for the better. Hugo’s message is clear, redemption or the road to progression lies in the political activity of Republicanism.


Yet, what do most adaptations – and from the looks of the trailer especially the upcoming movie adaptation – focus on? Love, redemption, and passion. All important parts of Hugo’s novel but only half of it without the grater political message – a political message that could and would work in modern times and terms. There obviously still is social and political injustice and misery. Of course it would be naïve to expect a movie studio or a musical company to focus on these aspects of one of the most acclaimed novels ever written but the twisting of a still sorely needed political message in order to turn political commentary into entertaining sing-songy sludge is still one of the grossest historical deceptions in the musical film world since The Sound of Music. While personally, I am not opposed to enjoying it, I think it is important to be aware that there is an important political message behind all these songs and characters and that turning this story into something like that not only does Hugo’s novel injustice but is an injustice akin to if a movie studio had turned the novel Push into a story about successfully losing weight and not the social drama that is Precious.

The tagline of the Les Mis movie is “The Dream lives”. Unfortunately, Victor Hugo’s dream certainly doesn’t live with this adaptation.