Among the best-known photographers of her time, Margaret Bourke-White recorded the physical and social landscape of the first half of the twentieth century, exploring the mechanical as well as the humanistic in American culture. Industrial and architectural subjects dominate her early work, though she would later become interested in photographing people as well as machines. Bourke-White also became a leading photojournalist in Europe during World War II.
Though she set out to concentrate on the biological sciences, as a student at Columbia University Bourke-White studied photography under Clarence H. White, a photographer associated with Alfred Stieglitz and his circle. In spite of her increasing interest in pursuing photography, Bourke-White left Columbia after just one year. She attended a number of schools before earning a degree in biology from Cornell University in 1927. To support herself at Cornell, Bourke-White began taking photographs of the campus and selling them to other students and to alumni. During this time, she became a skilled architectural photographer and decided to pursue a career in the field.
By 1929, Margaret Bourke-White had moved to New York City and taken a photographer’s position with a new business magazine, Fortune. In 1930, Fortune sent her to the Soviet Union where she was to do a story on Russian industrialization. Bourke-White’s photographs from this trip presented a more wide-ranging and thorough photographic record of the Soviet Union than Americans had seen before. These photos of Soviet Russia were collected as Bourke-White’s first book, Eyes on Russia (1931).
By the mid-1930s, Bourke-White’s photographs focused less on the industrialization of America and she began to use her camera to document other, more human aspects of modern life. In 1934, she covered the Dust Bowl, the severe drought and dust storms, or “black blizzards,” that crippled the Plains states for the first half of the decade.
Her interest in documenting human experience led to Bourke-White’s first collaboration with Erskine Caldwell, the 1937 book Have You Seen Their Faces, which used both text and photographic images to detail the lives of sharecroppers in the American south. Though Bourke-White and Caldwell married in 1939, they remained together for only three years. Despite their failed union, they collaborated on two additional projects: North of the Danube (1939) and Say, Is This the USA (1941). Her collaborations with Caldwell were very well received, and Have You Seen Their Faces is still considered one of her most important works.
During World War II, Bourke-White returned to the Soviet Union to cover the war there for Life Magazine. When the Germans invaded in January 1941, Bourke-White was the only American photographer in the country and so was able to provide exclusive photos of the Soviet War for the magazine. As a war correspondent, Bourke-White did not yield to discriminatory practices that often held women reporters back; as a result of her determination she became the first woman to accompany a United States Air Force bombing mission.
Margaret Bourke-White is known equally as an artist (Alfred Stieglitz is said to have called her “one of the world’s great artists”) and as a journalist who documented the social and industrial landscape of her day.