Renowned photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White fearlessly documented battles on land, air, and sea, surviving combat zones, strafing during a bombing run, torpedoing at sea, and the bombardment of Moscow. Always hungry for new experiences, Bourke-White traveled the globe to observe, to learn, and make sense of the world. To that end, she would work briefly in Hollywood learning the art of moviemaking, an area little covered in her career.
Born Margaret White in New York, the young girl quickly grew interested in the field of photography through her father’s enthusiasm for cameras, continuing to work with practitioners and study the field while taking classes in college, before switching her focus to lenswork. White worked for the campus newspaper at her alma mater, Cornell, snapping shots of the area around the school, before establishing a commercial photography studio in Cleveland, Ohio in 1927, specializing in industrial and architectural photography. It was here she combined her parents’ last names to form her professional moniker, Margaret Bourke-White.
A Camels ad features Margaret Bourke-White, May 6, 1938.
Her vivid and dramatic compositions led a position as associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine in 1929, where she shot titans of industry, national leaders, and average citizens. She also fearlessly climbed atop eagle sculptures overhanging New York’s Chrysler building to document both it and city.
Bourke-White’s curiosity led her to seek out adventures in unfamiliar landscapes, like the Soviet Union, where she became the first foreign photographer allowed to photograph factories and industrialization in 1930. Her stark, geometric compositions focused a harsh look on mass manufacturing. While carrying out her work, Bourke-White observed the struggling but proud Soviet people, and began recording their lives as well.
She decided to make a film documenting the Soviet land and peoples, her first time behind a moving picture camera, in order that more Americans might come to see the land and understand it and its people. Bourke-White returned to the United States in 1932 with more than 20,000 feet of film, and began whittling it down into a workable form.
The February 14, 1934 Film Daily reported she had negotiated a deal with Van Beuren Corp., in which they would purchase the film and see it released as part of the Vagabond Adventure Series released by RKO. The trade journal called her “one of the outstanding commercial photographers in the United States,” noting her outstanding composition and lighting.
‘Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography,” states that Van Beuren bought one tenth of the footage for a third of what it cost Bourke-White to shoot. A little confused, Motion Picture Daily stated on February 2, 1934 that the photojournalist would make two films for Van Beuren, which would be “compiled, edited, and recorded under her supervision.”
The first eleven minute documentary, narrated by Bourke-White, was released to theaters in November 1934 on a bill with King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread,” with Variety calling “Red Russia” a Soviet travelogue. The review stated that “Margaret Bourke-White is shown grinding her camera” at houses, farms, apartments, animals, and factories of Russia, which they described as “a swell publicity break for the U.S.S.R.” Film Daily called it thrilling and noted the fine composition by the lady cameraist of “Eyes on Russia,” with both it and Motion Picture Daily calling the short very interesting and informative.
It appears that unfortunately the second short was never released. After the headaches of dealing with film distribution and production executives, Bourke-White wiped her hands of filmmaking, never picking up a motion picture camera for the rest of her life.
Not long after, Henry Luce lured her to his new magazine, Life in 1936, hiring her as one of the four original staff photographers to craft articles marrying photography and journalism on a wide variety of subjects. In effect, she became the first photojournalist, marrying photo and reporting to tell a compelling story. In order to maintain editorial control of her work, Bourke-White printed to a black border, which revealed her cropping.
Bourke-White would split her time between documenting the towering machinery and infrastructure of America’s manufacturing might and military struggles of lands fighting for their identity, like Spain, while also recording human interest and entertaining stories on the makings of motion pictures. Between these assignments, she could take time off to focus on personal projects like books and special subjects. Bourke-White captured strong human interest stories like struggling sharecroppers in the South, the poor factory worker beaten down by machinery, war victims, and the like. Though once renowned for her strong visuals of machinery and power, she gained recognition for her stark but vulnerable images of tired, proud people living in primitive conditions.
Some of her lighter subjects revolved around the shooting of films. Jock Lawrence of the Samuel Goldwyn Company arranged with Life for Bourke-White to shoot “odd shot angles” of “The Goldwyn Follies” for an eight-page spread, per the October 14, 1937 Daily Variety. In early November, she captured odd moments and unique compositions during the filming of Paramount’s “the Big Broadcast of 1938.” To obtain just the right sour look she wanted, Bourke-White called director Mitchell Leisen “Mr. Lasky” just before snapping one picture.
For several years, Bourke-White traveled the world with her new husband, novelist Erskine Caldwell, documenting the life of sharecroppers in the South, the battles in China, and the start of war in Russia. She was the only western photographer in Moscow when war broke out with Germany, shooting shelling of the city and country during the siege in 1941.
Escaping Russia, the fearless Bourke-White took on new challenges as she flew on an aerial mission with American pilots over Europe, surviving flak and gunfire. She also escaped a torpedoing unharmed, but losing her cameras and most of her clothes in the process. Returning to the United States, Bourke-White lectured and wrote books.
Margaret Bourke-White took the cover photo for the first issue of Life magazine.
Sam Goldwyn brought her back to Hollywood for work in spring 1943 to bring some prestige to his big budget dramatic look at the invasion of Russia and the suffering of a small Ukrainian village, “The North Star,” written by Lillian Hellman. Respected director Lewis Milestone would helm the project, with talented James Wong Howe serving as cinematographer of the stirring look at the Russian war front. The April 7, 1943 Motion Picture Daily reported that Bourke-White would shoot motion picture stills for the first time on the film, with its subject dear to her heart.
For several weeks in April 1943, Bourke-White lensed production stills, off-camera action, and portraits for “The North Star” alongside veteran stills man Hal McAlpin, formerly of Paramount. The war movie introduced young actor Farley Granger to movies, along with such veterans as Walter Huston, Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, Erich von Stroheim as a German doctor taking transfusions from children, and young Dana Andrews and Jane Withers. Viewing stills in the core production files of the Margaret Herrick Library, McAlpin’s appear more dramatic and eye-grabbing, perhaps because of his wide experience in shooting on sets.
Paramount Pictures sought Bourke-White’s life story in May 1943, after actress Loretta Young approached studio executive B. G. De Sylva about making a biopic after meeting Bourke-White and discussing her galvanizing life. Young realized the dramatic potential of reenacting Bourke-White’s exciting and fearless adventures on the big screen, giving her a meaty part full of action and thrills, something usually left to men stars. Unfortunately, Paramount dragged its heels, and nothing came of the intriguing possibility. As the Los Angeles Times stated in an April 1943 column, “Margaret Bourke-White is perhaps the only American woman to know how it feels to to under enemy fire in a Flying Fortress as well as the desperation of riding hostile waters in a lifeboat after a torpedoing….”
While her experiences in Hollywood came to an end, Bourke-White continued her global adventures covering breaking news as well as turning out books for several years. She began appearing on news shows, which documented her life and career, after many appearances on radio shows.
In 1952, Bourke-White discovered she suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, which greatly affected her work, bringing it to a crawl. Others began writing and documenting her work, emphasizing the importance of her pioneering work. The 1957 documentary “The Photographer” by Willard Van Dyke, focused on the life and careers of photographers Edward Weston, Eisenstaedt, and Weegee, along with that of Bourke-White. The short featured the narration of Raymond Massey and music by a young Elmer Bernstein. Teresa Wright played her in a 1960 NBC telefilm called “The Margaret Bourke-White Story,” showing her fighting against Parkinson’s and still making her voice heard in the world.
Margaret Bourke-White died on August 27, 1971, finally overcome by Parkinson’s, but one of the first people to undergo surgery in an attempt to cure the disease. She made a dramatic impact on the world of photojournalism, creating a whole new way of looking at complex issues and places. Her work in film is mostly forgotten, overcome by the more intrepid and exhilarating adventures in capturing life’s dramatic moments.