Born: June 14, 1904, in the Bronx, New York
Grew up in: Middlesex Borough, New Jersey
Died: August 27, 1971, in Stamford, Connecticut
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2022: Arts & Letters
Margaret Bourke-White lived a life of firsts, including the first cover photo for Life magazine.
Born Margaret White, she grew up in Middlesex Borough, near Bound Brook, in a home that has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in architecture and photojournalism. Her father, Joseph White, was an engineer and inventor whose interest in cameras introduced young Margaret to photography.
After graduating from Plainfield High School, Margaret entered Columbia University to study herpetology, but her interest in photography continued to grow. She transferred among several colleges, finally receiving her BA degree in 1927 from Cornell University, where studied biology and took photos for the school newspaper.
For her professional career, Margaret added her mother’s maiden name, Bourke, to the family name. As Margaret Bourke-White, she set up her first studio in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in architectural and industrial subjects. Her photos came to the attention of publisher Henry Luce, who, in 1929, offered her a job as Fortune magazine’s first staff photographer. The next year, she became the first foreign photographer allowed inside the Soviet Union. She travelled there three times, documenting the USSR’s five-year-plan and making portraits of famous Russians, including Joseph Stalin.
In 1936, when Luce launched Life, Bourke-White was one of four original staff photographers; her dramatically composed photo of a spillway near Fort Peck Dam in Montana appeared on the magazine’s first cover. As a Life photographer, Bourke-White documented Depression-era America, capturing scenes of drought victims in Oklahoma and poverty in the rural South. Perhaps her most famous photo depicts Black flood victims in Kentucky lined up in front of a billboard of a smiling white family proclaiming, “There’s no way like the American way.”
During World War II, Bourke-White was the first known female war correspondent and the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. She photographed the fall of Moscow; fighting in North Africa, Italy and Germany; and the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation. With many close calls, she became known around Life as “Maggie the Indestructible.”
After the war, Bourke-White travelled to Asia, where she chronicled the violence that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan. In 1946, she made her iconic photo for Mohandas K. Gandhi at his spinning wheel; two years later, she photographed and interviewed Gandhi just hours before his assassination.
By 1953, the onset of Parkinson’s disease began to slow Bourke-White’s output. Her starkly realistic images remain an indelible part of the historic record of the mid-20th century. In the book “The Great Life Photographers,” Bourke-White gave all the credit to her camera: “Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.”