Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism

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Within the world of photography, in the great stories of photography, men seem to have the leading voice. But we can not forget that it is precisely here where more outstanding women we can find. And if we remember the figure of Margaret Bourke White we find a person who did everything in the world of photography and yet rarely speaks of it.

It has always caught my attention to read in the great stories of photography, like that of Beaumont Newhall , women seem to have a secondary role. Of course we talk about them but they do not reach the intensity of other photographers with a lower quality. Someday, only your job will matter, not who you know or what sex you have. Let’s meet her or at least remember her.

She was born in 1904 in the Bronx district of New York in 1904 with the name of Margaret White. But she will be remembered by her mother’s last name, with whom she started working, Margaret Bourke White. According to the chronicles, her  is orderly and meticulous character was given by her father engineer. Since he was young, he stood out for her intelligence and went through six universities. In 1927 he received the title of Biology with the specialty of Herpetology, the study of reptiles.

Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism
One of her mythical images

She also studied photography at Columbia University to improve on a hobby she inherited from her father. Unfortunately, she died soon and was forced to work before finishing her training. She never imagined that thanks to her little passion she, her daughter, would end up knowing Gandhi and endure the horror of photographing the barbarism of the Nazi concentration camps.

Her passion for progress and technology led him to work with the new architects and engineers to photograph new buildings and all kinds of industrial advances. It was even one of the pioneers when it came to working with flashes. Precisely this ability was what led him to be considered one of the best techniques of those years when everything was going to fall.

And so she managed to enter the magazine ‘Fortune’, by the hand of Henry Luce, the famous tycoon who wanted in his ranks someone who was able to tell in this way the song to industrialization. The funny thing is that his way of seeing it was compatible with both capitalism and communism. So it is striking that she was so beloved by the popes of capitalism and that she was able to go photograph the industrial machinery of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. She was the first woman who achieved it.

The entry in the LIFE magazine

Henry Luce decided to bet on a much more visual magazine than ‘Fortune’. So he bought the header of ‘Life’ and transformed it into the most important illustrated magazine. And you know who got the first cover of November 1936? Yes, Margaret Bourke White, with a report on the construction of a dam that would lead to the largest power plant in the American West. And he laid the foundations of a crucial genre for photojournalism: the photographic essay.

Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism
First cover of Life

We are at the time of the great American crisis, only surpassed by the one we are currently experiencing. The fall of Wall Street in 1929 and the droughts plunged the people into the most absolute misery. The government of Roosevelt created the New Deal , a series of reforms and economic aid to alleviate the situation.

There arose the Farm Security Administration , which studied and tried to remedy the problems of the rural sector of the population. What has remained in the memory, were the images taken by the greatest photographers of the time, hired to document all the work done and face the condemned peasants.

Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism
Frame of the video ‘Margaret Bourke-White Tribute Film’

Margaret Bourke White, figure of the social and political commitment of American graphic journalism, made one of her most sensed reports in the book ‘You Have Seen Their Faces’. It is difficult to find, especially in the language of Cervantes. However there was a kind of battle between her and Walker Evans. Bourke White’s book was more crude, more directed. Less elegant than the famous work of Walker Evans and James Agee ‘Let’s praise famous men now’. Evans was more documentary and Bourke White opted for the essay in the manner of Smith … Someday I will be able to see it with my own eyes.

Nazi Germany and the photography of Gandhi

But his hardest work was undoubtedly the first images of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945 . A truly sensitive experience not only because of what he saw, but because his father’s family was of Jewish origin. She was the first woman who received permission to work as a war photographer on flights of the American Air Forces.

And she entered with General Patton in the Buchenwald concentration camp. There she was able to photograph the horror with all its harshness. I will not describe your photos but I will only say that the films on the subject fall short. It was very criticized but she considered it an obligation to do so. ‘Life’ published part of this report. She decided to skip her own policy of not publishing the most unpleasant aspects of World War II.

Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism
Frame of the video ‘Margaret Bourke-White Tribute Film’

But if you have to choose a photograph that will go down in history, it is the image of Gandhi with the spinning wheel, inside the report that made him hours before he was murdered. As we can read in the book ‘Photos of the century’ the session was complicated. They knew what their ideas were, so they practically forced her to learn to spin with a spinning wheel before taking the pictures.

Margaret Bourke White, the mother of photojournalism
Frame of the video ‘Margaret Bourke-White Tribute Film’

Before starting, they told him he could only do three shots. And to improve things, I could not address him because he was on his day of meditation. He had only three disposable flashes. By the nerves, the first two shots failed due to a synchronization problem and because it did not go off. The third was the last and definitive one. A jewel, a symbol.

From that day Maragaret Bourke White stopped trusting so much in technique and found that the most important thing was constant work, the friend who will never disappoint you.


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