Margaret Bourke-White was born on June 14, 1904, in New York City, and graduated from Cornell University in 1927. Choosing photography as a profession, she immediately began her dramatic career by experimenting with industrial subjects.
By 1929, Bourke-White’s reputation attracted the attention of the publisher Henry Luce, who engaged her as an associate editor for his FORTUNE magazine. Bourke-White was FORTUNE’s only photographer for the eight months prior to the publication of the first issue in February 1930. Throughout the next several years, there was no location or type of photography too difficult or too mundane for Bourke-White. She covered assignments throughout the United States, and traveled to Germany and Russia. In what would be just one of many “firsts," Bourke-White became the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures of Russian industry.
Between 1930 and 1936, Bourke-White would return to Russia twice more and become the first foreign cinematographer to leave the country with motion pictures of its industry. In 1934 she photographed the Dust Bowl, and in 1935 began aviation photography for TWA and Eastern Airlines. In 1936, Bourke-White joined Peter Stackpole, Tom McAvoy, and Alfred Eisenstaedt as the first staff photographers for LIFE magazine. Her photograph of the great Fort Peck dam appeared on the first issue’s cover.
Bourke-White went on to cover the world, traveling to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, China, and again to the Soviet Union. She was the only U.S. photographer present in Moscow as the Germans attacked Russia in 1941. Bourke-White became the first woman accredited as a war correspondent in 1942, and became the first woman to accompany an Air Force bombing mission (1943).
Margaret Bourke-White In Her High Altitude Flight Suit (holding aerial camera, standing in front of B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber), 1943. (c.Time Inc.)
In 1944, Bourke-White covered World-War II from Italy, eventually joining Patton’s army as it traveled through Germany in 1945. Among Bourke-White’s most haunting and memorable work are the pictures taken at Buchenwald.
Assignments for LIFE took Bourke-White throughout India, Japan, Korea, and South Africa. Bourke-White authored several books, including You Have Seen Their Faces, Shooting The Russian War, Purple Heart Valley, and Halfway To Freedom. There are numerous books written about her life and work as well as a 1960 made-for-television movie. She fought a heroic 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease prior to her death in 1971.
Bourke-White’s photographs are included in many important museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1998, Sidney Monroe curated the the first significant exhibit of her work in many years at his New York gallery that featured the premiere of Estate authorized prints, and the centennial anniversary of her birth was celebrated with the exhibition “Margaret Bourke-White At 100” at Monroe Gallery of Photography, April 2 – June 27, 2004.
Several of Bourke-White's iconic photographs will be included in the exhibition "History's Big Picture", Monroe Gallery of Photography, July 1 - September 25, 2011.