Photography Masters - Margaret Bourke-White
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Margaret Bourke-White

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

She became the first photographer whose photo was featured on the cover of the inaugural issue of Life magazine: her picture Fort Peck Dam, Montana appeared on the first cover.

It was her iconic photograph of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel in Pune’s Yerwada prison, which later was splashed across the world when he was assassinated.

Acclaimed as the first Western photographer to witness the German invasion of Moscow in 1941, as also the first woman to accompany Air Corps crews on bombing missions in 1942, Margaret Bourke-White emerged as one of the most respected photojournalists during the 1930s and 40s.

Born in New York City in 1904, Bourke-White pursued a career in photography opening a photography studio in Ohio. Starting with photographs of architecture and industry, she went on to work for Time and Fortune magazines; in fact when she was 25 years old, she was invited by founder, Henry Luce, to become Fortune’s first staff photographer.

Gandhi reads as he sits cross-legged on the floor next to a spinning wheel. In this symbolic photo, Bourke-White keeps the wheel to occupy a major part of the frame to convey what Gandhi stood for while Gandhi is positioned on the top right side of the frame backlit from the window behind. Despite the wheel dominating the frame the focus has been set on Gandhi hence the eye eventually rests on him.
Gandhi reads as he sits cross-legged on the floor next to a spinning wheel. In this symbolic photo, Bourke-White keeps the wheel to occupy a major part of the frame to convey what Gandhi stood for while Gandhi is positioned on the top right side of the frame backlit from the window behind. Despite the wheel dominating the frame the focus has been set on Gandhi hence the eye eventually rests on him.

Bourke-White’s photo-essays in Germany, Soviet Union and the Dust Bowl in the American Midwest introduced people and social issues using a compassionate and humanitarian approach to photos. Her unique strength was her ability to convey the intensity of major world events while respecting formal relationships and aesthetic considerations.

Something unheard of in those times, she worked directly with the American armed forces during World War II for Life. Not one to rest on her laurels, she covered the siege of Moscow, on which she wrote a book, Shooting the Russian War. And when the war had entered its last phase, she crossed the Rhine River into Germany with General George Patton’s Third Army troops—her photographs starkly highlighting the emaciated inmates of concentration camps and of the corpses in gas chambers.

Members of the native Bedouin camel cavalry called Meharists commanded by the officers of the French expeditionary force, pose on their she-camel mounts in the desert near Damascus. May 1940. This photo has repetitive patterns (camel’s bodies) to create a sense of symmetry guiding the viewer from the left to the right side of the frame. Photo is tightly cropped so that the entire focus is on the subjects.
Members of the native Bedouin camel cavalry called Meharists commanded by the officers of the French expeditionary force, pose on their she-camel mounts in the desert near Damascus. May 1940. This photo has repetitive patterns (camel’s bodies) to create a sense of symmetry guiding the viewer from the left to the right side of the frame. Photo is tightly cropped so that the entire focus is on the subjects.

Her relentless zest took her to India to document one of the world’s largest mass migrations caused by the partition of the Indian subcontinent. She was also at hand to work as war correspondent during the Korean War, and travelled with South Korean troops.

Undoubtedly, her profound impact on the world of art photography, documentary and photojournalism and her dare-devil approach made her a true trailblazer—becoming a role model for future generations of professional female photographers.

Commenting on the lengths she would go to make the desired photograph, historian Vicki Goldberg writes, ‘she waltzed over heights like an aerialist in high-heeled velvet slippers. Photographs exist of her poised, in a neat, head-hugging cloche, on a Cleveland rooftop with her camera and tripod. Other photographs show her standing on ledges high above the city with both hands on her camera. None of this was merely a stunt; she would do anything to get the best picture.’

Twelfth U.S. Air Force in B-17 bombers fly over the African coast returning from a bombing mission near El Aouina airfield in 1943, during World War II. By using a silhouette of a bomber wing against an otherwise light greyish scene the viewers’ attention goes there first. The group of bombers surround the wing at a distance and another bomber is in proper view close by thereby conveying what’s happening in the scene. The aerial view of the sea and coastline gives a sense of location for the photo.
Twelfth U.S. Air Force in B-17 bombers fly over the African coast returning from a bombing mission near El Aouina airfield in 1943, during World War II. By using a silhouette of a bomber wing against an otherwise light greyish scene the viewers’ attention goes there first. The group of bombers surround the wing at a distance and another bomber is in proper view close by thereby conveying what’s happening in the scene. The aerial view of the sea and coastline gives a sense of location for the photo.

She along with her novelist-husband Erskine Caldwell produced three illustrated books: You Have Seen Their Faces, about Southern sharecroppers; North of the Danube, about life in Czechoslovakia before the Nazi takeover; and Say, Is This the USA, about the industrialization of the United States. Photographs of Bourke-White are held in many leading museums including a collection of her work in the Library of Congress.

During her final years she was afflicted with Parkinson disease—but she continued to work as well as publish several books on her work including her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Bourke-White passed away in 1971. Perhaps she’s best described by the nickname she developed during her illustrious career in ​Life magazine: ‘Maggie the Indestructible.’

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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