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Margaret Bourke-White: A Fearless News Photographer


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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about photographer Margaret Bourke-White, one of the leading news reporters of the twentieth century.

A young woman is sitting on her knees on top of a large metal statue. She is not in a park.  She is outside an office building high above New York City.   The young woman reached the statue by climbing through a window on the sixty-first floor.  She wanted to get a better picture of the city below.

The woman is Margaret Bourke-White. She was one of the leading news reporters of the twentieth century. But she did not write the news. She told her stories with a camera. She was a fearless woman of great energy and skill.  Her work took her from America's Midwest to the Soviet Union. From Europe during World War Two to India, South Africa and Korea. Through her work, she helped create the modern art of photojournalism.

In some ways, Bourke-White was a woman ahead of her time. She often did things long before they became accepted in society. She was divorced.  She worked in a world of influential men, and earned their praise and support. She wore trousers and colored her hair.  Yet, in more important ways, she was a woman of and for her times. She became involved in the world around her and recorded it in pictures for the future.

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York City in nineteen-oh-four. When Margaret was very young, the family moved to New Jersey.   Her mother, Minnie Bourke, worked on publications for the blind. Her father, Joseph White, was an engineer and designer in the printing industry. He also liked to take pictures.  Their home was filled with his photographs. Soon young Margaret was helping him take and develop his photographs.

When she was eight years old, her father took her inside a factory to watch the manufacture of printing presses.  In the foundry, she saw hot liquid iron being poured to make the machines.  She remembered this for years to come.

Margaret attended several universities before completing her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in nineteen twenty-seven.  She studied engineering, biology and photography.   She married while she was still a student. But the marriage only lasted one year.

Margaret took the name Bourke-White, the last names of her mother and father. In nineteen twenty-eight, she began working in the midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio.  It was then one of the centers of American industry. She became an industrial photographer at the Otis Steel Company.  In the hot, noisy factories where steel was made, she saw beauty and a subject for her pictures.

She said: "Industry is alive.  The beauty of industry lies in its truth and simpleness.  Every line has a purpose, and so is beautiful. Whatever art will come out of this industrial age will come from the subjects of industry themselves…which are close to the heart of the people."

Throughout America and Europe, engineers and building designers found beauty in technology.  Their machines and buildings had artistic forms.  In New York, the Museum of Modern Art opened in nineteen twenty-nine.  One of its goals was to study the use of art in industry.  Bourke-White's photographic experiments began with the use of industry in art.

Bourke-White's first pictures inside the steel factory in Cleveland were a failure. The difference between the bright burning metal and the black factory walls was too extreme for her camera.  She could not solve the problem until she got new equipment and discovered new techniques of photography.  Then she was able to capture the sharp difference between light and dark.  The movement and power of machines.  The importance of industry.

Sometimes her pictures made you feel you were looking down from a great height, or up from far below.  Sometimes they led you directly into the heart of the activity.

In New York, a wealthy and influential publisher named Henry Luce saw Bourke-White's pictures.  Luce published a magazine called Time. He wanted to start a new magazine.  It would be called Fortune, and would report about developments in industry. Luce sent a telegram to Bourke-White, asking her to come to New York immediately.  She accepted a job as photographer for Fortune magazine.  She worked there from nineteen twenty-nine to nineteen thirty-three.

Margaret Bourke-White told stories in pictures, one image at a time.   She used each small image to tell part of the bigger story. The technique became known as the photographic essay.  Other magazines and photographers used the technique.  But Bourke-White – more than most photographers – had unusual chances to develop it.

In the early nineteen thirties, she traveled to the Soviet Union three times.  Later she wrote:

"Nothing invites me so much as a closed door.  I cannot let my camera rest until I have opened that door. And I wanted to be first. I believed in machines as objects of beauty.  So I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize – almost overnight – was perfect for me."

On her first trip to the Soviet Union, Bourke-White traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  She carried many cameras and examples of her work. When she arrived in Moscow, a Soviet official gave her a special travel permit, because he liked her industrial photographs. The permit ordered all Soviet citizens to help her while she was in the country.

Bourke-White spoke to groups of Soviet writers and photographers. They asked her about camera techniques, and also about her private life.

After one gathering, several men surrounded her and talked for a long time. They spoke Russian. Not knowing the language, Bourke-White smiled in agreement at each man as he spoke.  Only later did she learn that she had agreed to marry each one of them.  Her assistant explained the mistake and said to the men: "Miss Bourke-White loves nothing but her camera."

By the end of the trip, Margaret Bourke-White had traveled eight thousand kilometers throughout the Soviet Union. She took hundreds of pictures, and published some of them in her first book, "Eyes on Russia." She returned the next year to prepare for a series of stories for the New York Times newspaper. And she went back a third time to make an educational movie for the Kodak film company.

Bourke-White visited Soviet cities, farms and factories.  She took pictures of workers using machines.  She took pictures of peasant women, village children, and even the mother of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. She took pictures of the country's largest bridge, and the world's largest dam.  She used her skill in mixing darkness and light to create works of art. She returned home with more than three thousand photographs – the first western documentary on the Soviet Union.

Margaret Bourke-White had seen a great deal for someone not yet thirty years old. But in nineteen thirty-four, she saw something that would change her idea of the world. Fortune magazine sent her on a trip through the central part of the United States.  She was told to photograph farmers – from America's northern border with Canada to its southern border with Mexico.

Some of the farmers were victims of a terrible shortage of rain, and of their own poor farming methods.  The good soil had turned to dust. And the wind blew the dust over everything.  It got into machines and stopped them.  It chased the farmers from their land, although they had nowhere else to go.

Bourke-White had never given much thought to human suffering.  After her trip, she had a difficult time forgetting.  She decided to use her skills to show all parts of life.  She would continue taking industrial pictures of happy, healthy people enjoying their shiny new cars.  But she would tell a different  story in her photographic essays.

Under one picture she wrote: "While machines are making great progress in automobile factories, the workers might be under-paid.  Pictures can be beautiful. But they must tell facts, too."  We will continue the story of photographer Margaret Bourke-White next week.

This program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis.  Our studio engineer was Tom Verba.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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Source: Margaret Bourke-White: A Fearless News Photographer
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