The cover photo of the first ever issue of Life magazine (November, 1936) was by Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971). In the 1920s, like other women photographers, writers, artists and editors who broke into the male-dominated professional world, lighting the way for women’s liberation – Lee Miller, Gertrude Stein, Dorothea Lange, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Imogen Cunningham, among others – Bourke-White had been ahead of her time.
She wanted to be the ‘eyes of the age’, and had ‘an unquenchable desire to be present when history is being made’, as she put it. She had the knack of being in the right place at the right time and, aggressive and relentless in her pursuit of pictures, she was prepared to go far further than most to achieve her goal.
One of the first photojournalists, her career began in 1927 in Cleveland, USA, where she photographed the city’s steel mills. She travelled to the USSR when the first five-year plan was being implemented – becoming the first Western photographer to document post-revolution Soviet industry. Bourke-White documented the drought of 1934 in the USA, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and the Allied bombing of Germany – she became the first woman to go on a bombing mission, in 1943, at a time when women were not allowed in combat zones, gaining herself international celebrity status. Present at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and the Leipzig-Mockau forced labour camp, her photograph The Living Dead of Buchenwald went round the world. Soon after she was in India recording the release of Mahatma Ghandi from prison, in 1946, and then in South Africa documenting the effects of labour exploitation during the 1950s.
The focus of the Martin Gropius Bau Margaret Bourke-White: Photographs 1930 – 1945 exhibition is on the pictures the photographer took in the 1930s and 40s in the former Soviet Union, former Czechoslovakia, Germany, the UK and Italy and consists of 154 photographs, letters and periodicals. Some of her word-picture sequences for the photo magazines Fortune and Life are on view as well as extracts from her correspondence with the likes of Winston Churchill and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Images from top
Russian worker on the turbine shell of the Dnejprostroj-hydro-electric power plant Soviet Union, Saporishya (today, Ukraine), ca 1930
Masters by Getty Images ©Time & Life/Getty Images
The Reverend Spiegelhoff from Milwaukee and American GIs at the mass in the Cologne cathedral, April 1945
Syracuse University Library Collection, New York ©Time & Life/Getty Images
Russian film director Sergej Eisenstein being shaved on the terrace of Bourke-White’s studio in the Chysler Building, NYC, 1932
Syracuse University Library Collection, New York ©2012 Estate of Margaret Bourke-White/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, USA
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