“Here in the Dakotas with these farmers, I saw everything in a new light. How could I tell it all in pictures? Here were faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair. These were faces I could not pass by.”
Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 110
Margaret Bourke White was a photographer who rose to fame during the Great Depression. Her early work was primarily commercial, and provided a glimpse into industry during the Depression. She went on to work for news magazines, eventually helping to develop the photographic essay and adopting a documentary style. While she was not part of the FSA, her documentary and commercial work from the 1930s provides varying view points of the decade. While often controversial, her work was widely distributed and influential during the Depression Era.
The Early Years
Margaret Bourke-White’s professional career started in 1927, after she graduated from Cornell University. She had received her photographic training at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, an influential school that counted Dorothea Lange among its students. Her first work was commercial, photographing the bridges and skyscrapers in Cleveland, Ohio. (Corwin et al. 2010, 109) Shortly afterward, she turned her focus towards factories. As a child, she had toured factories with her father, and it influenced her greatly. She stated of the experience, “at that age, a foundry represented the beginning and end of all beauty” (Bourke-White 1985, 18). During the winter of 1927-28, Bourke-White began photographing the Otis Steel Mill with the approval of the owner, E.J Kulas. (Corwin et al. 2010, 109) She photographed for a period of time, her early work being disastrous. She had difficulty lighting her compositions, and eventually found a solution in magnesium flares originally intended for use in the movie industry(110). Her extensive shooting at the Otis Steel Mill helped her develop her distinctive style. The flares gave her images dramatic lighting, and she began using the motif of “tightly framed repetition of identical objects, often viewed across a diagonally receding line with no discernible termination” (111). It was the publication of these photographs that got Bourke-White first noticed.
The Fortune Years
After seeing Bourke-White’s images of the Otis Steel Mill, Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, asked her to work on his forthcoming publication: Fortune (Smith 1983, 308). Bourke-White began working on several projects for the magazine. Fortune brought Bourke-White’s photographs a national audience. Her assignments gave her the chance to travel extensively, and cover a wide variety of industries (Silverman 1983, 12).
On October 24, 1929, the night of the stock market crash, Bourke-White found herself photographing the vault at the First National Bank of Boston. The image was a long exposure, and she continually had to recap the lens to prevent the images of bankers hurrying across the shot from appearing on the negative (Bourke-White 1985, 72). With the context of the crash, the image is particularly haunting. The vault seems to glow and appears almost otherworldly. Later, she wished she had the presence of mind to document the frantic bankers to have a historic record of Black Tuesday (Silverman 1983, 13). Bourke-White also worked on a story about the Swift and Company meat-packing plant. “Hogs” would become the lead story when Fortune debuted in February 1930. Bourke-White’s images lead the viewers though the meat-packing process, showing some elements of a proper photo-essay (Callahan 1972, 11).
During the early 1930s, Bourke-White split her time between assignments for Fortune and working on advertising commissions. In 1933, she cut back on her documentary work to focus on advertising (Callahan 1972, 35). She photographed commercial goods much like she did the factories – with endless repetition. While this does little to reflect the rampant poverty of the era, Sharon Corwin (2010) notes that these manic images reflect on the very causes of the Depression; consumers were unable to keep pace with production (112). She also notes that the images “advertised the promise of capitalist production,” despite the crumbling economy (112).
The drought of 1934 brought Bourke-White’s focus back to documentary work. Fortune sent Bourke-White to photograph the affected areas. Here, Bourke-White was exposed to human suffering for the first time, and it changed her work greatly (Callahan 1972, 35). Afterwards, she started refusing many advertising jobs so that her work could be more beneficial (Goldberg 1987, 160). While her photographs of the disaster were not particularly notable, her article on the Dust Bowl was the first of its kind to be published in the US. While other photographers had been working on social documentary, hers was the first to appear in print (Callahan 1972, 14). Beyond appearing in Fortune, Bourke-White also offered images to the left-wing journal New Masses (Corwin et al. 2010, 121). Bourke-White also published her observations on the Dust Storms in the May 22, 1935 edition of The Nation (Silverman 1983, 77).
“I was deeply moved by the suffering I saw and touched particularly by the bewilderment of the farmers. I think this was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subjects for the camera and photographed against a wider canvas than I had perceived before. During the rapturous period when I was discovering the beauty of industrial shapes, people were only incidental to me, and in retrospect I believe I had not much feeling for them in my earlier work. But suddenly it was the people who counted.”
–Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 110
You Have Seen Their Faces
After witnessing the Dust Bowl, Bourke-White decided it was time to reconnect with the people. She had heard that fiction-writer Erskine Caldwell was looking to produce a non-fiction work about southern sharecroppers to counter criticism of his novel Tobacco Road (Callahan 1972, 91). At first, her involvement seemed unlikely – Caldwell didn’t care much for her work and their early dealings were tense (91). However, in June of 1936, they set off together to start work on You Have Seen Their Faces. Caldwell would talk to their subjects, while Bourke-White would wait until the right expression crossed their face to take the picture (Goldberg 1987, 169). While she still directed her subjects somewhat, she took the pictures during spontaneous moments (69). During her second trip to the south in Spring 1937, Bourke-White engaged more with her subjects, getting to know their lives and social conditions (Corwin et al. 2010, 127). Her pictures are “an assortment of devastating images of environmental, social, and personal decay” (Callahan 1972, 15).
The book itself was a success when it came out in November 1937; it was considered the most important work of its day on the plight of sharecroppers (15). interestingly, The book’s success may have caused the delay in publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, as at least one publisher cited the tome as a reason for rejection (16). The book was not without controversy, though. Bourke-White and Caldwell both contributed to the captions accompanying the pictures. These captions were “intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons” (Caldwell and Bourke-White 1975, vi). Some of the captions are almost comical, and often represent southern stereotypes (Vials 2006, 96). The captions as well as Caldwell’s narratives ensured the reader understood the message that they were telling. While their documentary style was later criticized for being highly staged and exploitative, this style was precisely what made it popular among the masses – it “fit within the visual culture of the day” (Corwin et al. 2010, 122).
Margaret Bourke-White was asked by Henry Luce to become involved with another new project, a photography based news magazine called Life. She joined the staff in August 1936 just months before its premiere issue, signing a contract for ten months out of the year (Goldberg 1987, 175). Her first assignment for the magazine was documenting the Fort Peck Dam, a WPA project started in 1933 (Callahan 1972, 17). While some of the photographs were typical images of industry and architecture, she surprised the editors by also documenting the boom towns that sprung up around the project (17). This story was chosen as the lead for the debut issue. The essay included bar scenes and pictures of ladies of the night (Goldberg 1987, 176). The image of a baby sitting on a bar caused uproar when it was published, leading to denials of neglect from a school official in New Deal and accusations that Bourke-White and Life were exploiting the girl (178). The first issue sold out within hours, and went through multiple reprints (181). Bourke-White’s article was considered historic; Vicki Goldberg (1987) stated that is was the first true photographic essay in America (180). Furthermore, it is a document of boom towns like New Deal, Montana, which would disappear entirely by the 1950s (180).
Another of Bourke-White’s images, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, would become famous in the following year. Life sent her on assignment to photograph the flooding of the Ohio River. This disaster would be one of the worst floods in American history. One image in particular stood out – that of a line of flood victims waiting for relief in front of cheerful billboard declaring “World’s Highest Standard of Living: There’s no way like the American Way!” While the image is not of unemployment or chronic poverty, the stark contrast has caused the photo to be used repeatedly to “comment on inequality, poverty, and deprivation” (Callahan 1972, 19).
Life magazine became a format that attracted many imitators (Goldberg 1987, 181). Bourke-White herself had a large effect in shaping the style of the publication. She was responsible for setting up their photography labs (185). Her insistence of printing the entire negative without cropping also became commonplace within the magazine, though the pictures were not always reproduced without cropping (185).
Margaret Bourke-White’s work has often been criticized for its lack of feeling. C. Zoe Smith (1983) criticized Bourke-White for her not understanding man’s role in society (309). Her early work often only included people for scale. These people were often stiffly posed by Bourke-White. Other critics, like Sharon Corwin (2010) defend the cold portrayal of employees, stating that her “photographs give visible form to the contingent status of Depression-era labor through the marginalized and diminutive bodies found in her images” (109). Her later documentary work has been described as “pathetic to the point of bathos” by historian William Stott (1973), who found her work to be overly dramatic (32, 279). Though her work may have been dramatic, works such as You Have Seen Their Faces brought awareness to the extreme poverty that existed during the Depression
After the Depression
As the Great Depression ended, and the United States became involved with World War II, Bourke-White’s attention shifted to Europe (Callahan 1972,19). She became a photographer for the Air Force in 1942, her photographs being used by both the military and Life (20). She continued to work for Life until she retired in 1969.
For More Information
Margaret Bourke-White’s papers are available at the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Library.