Machine Age Maven
It's an unforgettable black-and-white image. A silver eagle juts from the side of a skyscraper who-knows-how-many feet up. Bathed in sunlight, a short-haired woman perched atop the bird, hands on a large-format camera, stares imperiously into the distance. Taken in 1932 by Oscar Graubner, the photo is of a photographer standing on the edge of New York City's Chrysler Building. The woman is Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971), pioneering photojournalist with the incisive eye.
In addition to endowing Bourke-White with a certain cool invincibility, the Graubner shot is incredibly apropos. Shiny modern machines have been conquered by man -- or in this case woman -- but they still loom large in our lives, wielding an unfathomable power over us. Harnessing images of that power was something Bourke-White spent her early career doing in magazines, advertisements, and corporate work and initially what brought her respect. While other female photographers of her time -- Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott -- made their names snapping portraits, Bourke-White was the first to tour factories around the world, creating abstract compositions from hulking machinery, making it look better than it ever could.
The New York native, whose father was an inventor, engineer, and amateur photographer, first became fascinated with industry at age eight when her dad took her on a memorable trip to a foundry. By the late 1920s, after studying with esteemed lensman Clarence H. White, Bourke-White landed in the burgeoning city of Cleveland. Soon her eye-catching work was all over America. But fame came in 1929 from Fortune, the magazine, that is. She was made the principal photographer at Time founder Henry Luce's revolutionary publication designed to celebrate capitalism and fuel its fires. Germany and the Soviet Union are just a few of the countries the intrepid Bourke-White visited on her quest to document international industry for her bosses. More than 140 photos from those years can be seen in the Wolfsonian-FIU's exhibition "Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936." Organized by Washington, D.C.'s Philips Collection, the show is the first major retrospective of her early work.
Vast amounts of travel and exposure to how other people lived had a profound effect on Bourke-White. By 1935 man began to share equal footing with machine in her mind, and her work in Fortune and You Have Seen Their Faces, the book she published independently with writer Erskine Caldwell, came to reflect that new reality.
Bourke-White's black-and-white shot of the imposing Fort Peck Dam in New Deal, Montana, which graced the cover of Henry Luce's brand-new magazine in November of 1936, might have belied that fresh approach. The impressive cover and the pictorial essay within seemed like yet another of her masterful depictions of technological behemoths. This time, though, the periodical was devoted to the doings of human beings. Gone but not forgotten, it was named Life.
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