Margaret Bourke-White: Industrial Pictorialist

Submitted by Marsha Morrow on

A pioneering figure in 20th-century documentary photography, Margaret Bourke-White is famous for her scenes of modern industry, the Great Depression, and political and social movements from the 1920s through the 1950s. Born in New York in 1904, Bourke-White attended Columbia University and studied under renowned photographer Clarence White. In 1927 she moved to Cleveland, the heartland of industrial America, and opened her own studio, documenting the effects of new-century technology. 

Bourke-White used the gelatin silver process, more commonly known as black and white photography, to capture powerful images. Drawing the attention of entrepreneur Henry Luce, founder of Time and Fortune magazines, Bourke-White became the first staff photographer employed by Fortune. In keeping with her groundbreaking work in the United States, Bourke-White obtained permission in 1930 to enter the Soviet Union to document industrialization under the Communist regime—the first foreign photographer to do so. Her photography captured the psychology of a nation of workers through these first “behind-the-scenes” images of Communist Russia. Upon her return in 1931, she compiled these photographs into a book entitled Eyes of Russia.

When Bourke-White returned to the United States she developed a style empathetic toward the suffering American worker. By 1935 she was using a more candid style of photography, sequentially ordering her photographs to create visual narratives. She explained, “While it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks . . . it is becoming more and more important to reflect the life that goes on behind these photographs.” Bourke-White started using this new approach for Fortune magazine in 1934, documenting the effects of the intense drought of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and in other Great Plains states. She created a photographic essay of mass migration from this region at the height of the Great Depression, and in 1936 published these images as You Have Seen Their FacesA vitirine featuring books and ephemera related to Bourke-White is on display in the Ingalls Library recent acquisitions room in compliment to Shadows and Dreams: Pictorialist Photography in America in the photography gallery of the East Wing.