Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneering figure in 20th century documentary photography and is famous for her scenes of modern industry, of the Great Depression, and of political and social movements in the 1920s through 1950s. Born in New York in 1904, Bourke-White attended Columbia University to study under renowned photographer, Clarence White. In 1927 she moved to Cleveland, the heartland of American industry, and opened her own studio. There she documented the effects of modern industry on the land and people. Bourke-White used silver gelatin print, more commonly known as black and white photography, to capture powerful images that caught the attention of entrepreneur Henry Luce, founder of Time and Fortune magazines. In 1929 Bourke-White became the first staff photographer employed by Fortune magazine. 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. Through her photography, she 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 greater sympathy for the suffering of the 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 in photography for Fortune Magazine in 1934 as she set off to document the effects of the intense drought of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and other Great Plains states. She created a photographic essay of the migration from this region at the height of the Great Depression and in 1936 published these images in a volume entitled You Have Seen Their Faces.
As an artist, Bourke-White continued to use photography as an instrument to examine social issues from a humanitarian perspective. She witnessed and documented some of the 20th century’s most notable moments, including the liberation of German concentration camps by General Patton in 1945, the release of Mahatma Gandhi from prison in 1946, and the effects of South African labor exploitation in the 1950s. Her career was cut short in 1966 due to Parkinson’s disease, and she died in 1971.