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.