Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, by Vicki Goldberg

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Photographer and writer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was a larger-than-life personality, and Vicki Goldberg’s detailed 1986 biography delves into her many achievements and draws out her complex personality.  Margaret was always ground-breaking, pioneering photography as a career for women while ready to take risks in her own practice (to the extent she earned, and justified, the nickname at Life magazine of ‘Maggie the Indestructible’) as she pushed herself and her cameras to their utmost limits.

Her father was a brilliant and focused engineer and inventor, her mother a strong personality, and through them she absorbed a need for perfectionism.  In addition to a fascination with technology Margaret inherited an interest in photography from her father, and she soon saw it as a way to earn money and be independent.  She had a deep love of the natural world, and her first ambition was to be a herpetologist, but she decided she did not have the necessary aptitude.  Initially seen as a summer job to make extra money, her photographic activities became her central focus, initially influenced by the Photo-Secession – her first camera had a cracked lens but for the sorts of soft-focus images she was taking it hardly mattered.  She soon moved to a more realistic mode however.

She took a set of architectural photographs for the student yearbook when studying herpetology at the University of Michigan.  That was also where she met her first husband, and there is much on her disastrous early marriage to Everett ‘Chappie’ Chapman from 1924 to 1926 which shaped her attitude to future relationships.  Leaving Chappie (and his ghastly mother) she moved to Cornell University, from where she gained a B.A. in 1927, and more importantly where she started her career in earnest, taking photographs around campus for the student newspaper.  The same year she added the Bourke, her mother’s maiden name, to her original surname of White, essentially to sound classier.

After a spell back in New York she moved to Cleveland, specialising in architectural and industrial photography.  She quickly showed promise, and the lengths she went to in order to secure images for the Otis Steel Company indicated her determination, enduring harsh conditions using technology not really yet up to the job.  Her results established her reputation.  She was taken on by Henry Luce for Fortune magazine in 1929 to work on industrial subjects, where she stayed until 1935.  While with Fortune, on the strength of her depictions of industry she was allowed to photograph in Germany and more significantly in Russia, where she went three times, a tremendous feat for an outsider during that period.  She attained the status of a celebrity in the process, as the number of product endorsements she did testify.

In 1936 she joined Life, the publication she was associated with for most of the rest of her career, tackling a vast array of assignments.  She took the image that was used for the first cover, Fort Peck Dam shot to look like mediaeval fortifications, but expanded her range when shooting human interest stories for Life such as the displaced in the Dust Bowl and flood victims.  In 1938 she toured central Europe as war was looming.  She married the well-known writer Erskine Caldwell in 1939 after they had worked together and he had subsequently harassed her extensively by telegram while she was abroad.  The marriage turned into a pain, and she threw in the towel in 1942.  He emerges as a needy, insecure and difficult man who would have tested the patience of a more tolerant woman than Margaret (interviewed by Goldberg, he died the year after the book was published; one wonders what he thought of it).  But then she must have been difficult to live with herself, her absorption in her work prioritising her needs over others’.

During the war she came into her own: she was in Moscow as it was bombed; she was embedded with US forces in North Africa and Italy; she came under fire, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean (possibly the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); and finally went into Germany, where she visited Buchenwald and photographed Nazi families who had committed suicide.  She later wrote Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report on The Collapse of Hitler’s Thousand Years about her experiences there.

After the war she worked extensively in India and South Africa.  During her lengthy stay in the former she photographed a number of political leaders, notably Gandhi, including just a few hours before his assassination; to be allowed into the presence she had had to demonstrate her ability to spin, which may indicate that Gandhi had a sense of humour after all.  Typically she caused outrage by trying to photograph his corpse when she had been expressly forbidden.  For her, the assignment transcended social obligations; a contradiction Goldberg brings out well is Margaret’s social conscience in the abstract but her willingness to exploit individuals for her own ends, overriding their feelings if necessary.

She had to have a tough carapace, as witness the unflinching way she recorded Germany’s disintegration at the end of the war, and later the genocidal horrors of the India/Pakistan partition.  Lee Miller returned from the war shattered, whereas Margaret was able to close the horrors in a room and shut the door, as she had with failed relationships.  That is not to say she was not affected, but she was able to transcend the experience and continue working, using her camera as therapy (though she did indulge in modish psychoanalysis as well).

Unsurprisingly she was caught up in the McCarthy red-baiting hysteria as a result of her trips to Russia and her espousal of left-wing causes, some of which may have been Communist fronts (the FBI had started a file on her in 1940).  The disquiet about her loyalties among conservative journalists was heightened by her access to sensitive military technology; even a crash in the Chesapeake Bay while a passenger in a naval helicopter didn’t seem to count much in her favour.  In response to attacks in the press she covered the conflict in Korea to in order to affirm her democratic credentials, and incidentally showing she had lost none of her nerve and eye for seeking out a new angle on a story.

She was more than a photographer, honing her skills as a writer through a series of illustrated books on her travels beginning with the collaboration with Caldwell before they married, You Have Seen their Faces (1937), on deprivation in the American South.  Eventually she worked out a system that dovetailed assignments with speaking tours and books.  Her later life was marked by Parkinson’s disease, the first symptoms appearing in 1951 and diagnosed in 1954, an appalling disease for anybody, especially so for a photographer, but an affliction she bore, like all other travails, with fortitude.  By 1957 though, her professional career was over.  Thereafter she lived quietly, publishing an autobiography, Portrait of Myself, in 1963, undergoing two brain operations in an attempt to halt the progress of the disease, and attempting to stave off the worst effects by vigorous exercise and sheer will power.

Goldberg highlights the conflict Margaret experienced in negotiating her personal and professional lives.  The latter always won, but Margaret eventually found a balance that allowed for relationships (quite a lot of them it seems, some more transient than others) though never at the cost of her independence.  Loneliness was a by-product, yet she was incapable of making the sorts of compromises necessary for the two spheres to complement each other.  She was conscious that in a man’s world she had to work twice as hard.  What is less admirable is how she used her sex to her advantage.  She tapped into the expertise of men, their willingness to help her, in a manner a man could not have.  She faced discrimination, but being a woman did often ease her path.  When necessary she was not above crying to get her own way.  Even so she saw work as her religion and a factor to her success was the amount of time she was willing to invest, spending months or even years on a project, obsessively over-shooting to get what she wanted.

A large number of people were interviewed for the book, and mention should be made of the unfettered access Margaret’s brother gave to her private and family papers in his care.  All too frequently biographers are refused the right to quote or reproduce documents and photographs, but Roger White laid down no conditions, for which he is to be commended.  Some witnesses, particularly sexual partners, gave interviews on condition of anonymity, but the length of the acknowledgements testify to the number of people who were willing to talk about Margaret, and what comes out, despite her sometimes imperious ways, is the enormous affection they harboured for her.

Goldberg assesses judiciously but with compassion Margaret’s strengths and weaknesses, her brilliant eye for composition and her tenacity, but also occasional technical limitations and a certain distance from her subjects that saw them as types rather than individuals.  Margaret’s life is contextualised in the social and political movements she lived through, and also the technological developments in photography and its mass reproduction of which she was always aware and which enabled her images to be seen by millions of people in the heyday of the illustrated magazine.  This is a superb tribute to an astonishing woman, and anyone with an interest in photojournalism, or the turmoil of the twentieth century, should read it.

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