National Museum of Women in the Arts
Margaret Bourke-White
June 14 1904 - August 27 1971
Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Margaret Bourke-White, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 9 x 10 1/2 inches (23 x 26.5 cm). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler
Place of Birth:
New York
Phonetic Spelling:
MAHR-ghe-reht berrk-(wh-eye-t)
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Multimedia (electronic, digital, video, film), Photography
Artistic Role(s):
Commercial Artist, Filmmaker, Photographer, Portraitist
Artist's Biography:
The American black-and-white photographer Margaret Bourke-White wielded both her camera and her character with incredible audacity and finesse. She was a true pioneer, even an athletic daredevil, in breathlessly chasing down corporate assignments to authenticate and dramatize the industrialization of the modern world. For a great part of her working life, she turned more exclusively to recording the human condition of her lifetime.

Bourke-White's father, an engineer and amateur photographer, stimulated her early interest in the subjects of factories and manufacturing. She turned exclusively to photography as a career following study of photography with Clarence H. White at Columbia University. Having established a name for herself in Cleveland as an architectural photographer, Bourke-White moved to New York when her photographs of Otis Steel Company and Terminal Tower caught the attention of Henry R. Luce, a publisher planning to start two magazines called Time and Fortune. As the first staff photographer for Fortune, she captured the intimidating skyscrapers and heavy machinery of industrializing America in a faultless, even exquisite design style. She presented the perfect rhythm of multiple objects, identical to one-another, in daring compositions. It was high-style decorative modernism applied to ductwork and steel, aluminum kettles and row-upon-row of pointed-toed shoes. Some of her most dramatic shots were taken from the Chrysler Building in New York. She also documented the steel industry and rearmament of Germany and, as the first Western photographer allowed to enter the Soviet Union in 1930, recorded the Soviet industrial revolution in her first book, Eyes on Russia, 1931.

Bourke-White was also a dominating force in journalistic news coverage and social documentation. In 1937, she immortalized close-up character portrait studies from an overwhelmingly emotional journey through the depressed American South. Her pictures of the poverty-stricken poor were published in Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces, 1937. As one of the first four photographers for Henry Luce’s picture magazine, Life, Bourke-White captured images of Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, Mahatma Ghandi hours before his assassination, and Moscow as it was bombed by Germany. Accredited as a photographer of the World War II effort, a ship she was aboard was torpedoed and she was saved from her lifeboat off the coast of North Africa. As the war ended, she unflinchingly entered Buchenwald; her remarkable aestheticism transported her from her youthful visions of progress to the darkest subjects of humanity. She was a photographer of remarkable resiliency and achievement.

Other Occupation(s):
Naturalist, Photojournalist, Student, Teacher, Traveler, Writer
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Where Trained/Schools:
Cornell University, Ithica, NY, USA (1926-1927) Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA (1925) Purdue University, Lafayette, IN, USA (1924) University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA (1922-1923) Columbia University, New York, NY, USA (1921-1922)
Related Visual Artists:
student of Clarence H. White
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Achievement Award, US Camera Magazine, New York, NY, USA (1963) Honorary Doctorate, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA (1950) Honorary Doctorate, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, USA (1948)
Earliest exhibition:
Photographs by Three Americans (with Ralph Stiener and Walker Evans), John Becker Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1931)
NMWA exhibition(s):
A History of Women Photographers
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century
Bourke-White: A Retrospective
Artist retrospective(s):
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, USA (2003) Margaret Bourke-White: A Retrospective, International Center of Photography, New York, NY, USA (1989)
Related places
Darien (died at)
Cement Workers, Novorossisk