New York

Margaret Bourke-White

Throughout most of her career, Margaret Bourke-White’s status as a media star overshadowed her photographs. It’s telling that even the picture used to advertise this show is not by her but of her, sitting in a demure skirt and fashionable hat on a girder of an unfinished building, clutching one of the bulky press cameras of the day. Life magazine, for which Bourke-White worked for many years, was happy to exploit her reputation as an intrepid photojournalist, continually risking danger to get her picture—“Life’s Bourke-White Goes Bombing” proclaimed the headline for a 1943 story featuring photos that Bourke-White made on a bombing raid; predictably, one of the lead pictures for the piece is of the photographer herself, casually fashionable in a leather flightsuit, blonde hair blowing.

At the same time, there’s no denying Bourke-White’s importance in the history of photojournalism. As the range of work in this exhibition (curated by Vicki Goldberg, Bourke-White’s biographer) makes clear, her achievements as a photographer were remarkable. After starting her career as an industrial photographer and working extensively for Fortune magazine in the early 1930s, she photographed the cover and lead story for the first issue of Life, in 1936. For many years thereafter she continued to be one of the chief photographers for that publication, covering important stories throughout the next three decades. During the Depression she collaborated with Erskine Caldwell on You Have Seen Their Faces, 1937, a highly successful phototext book about rural Southern poverty; before her death in 1971 she produced two other books with Caldwell and six more on her own. Moreover, she did all this as a woman, at a time when such achievements were remarkable. Given these accomplishments, it is understandable that she would become a heroine of the camera in a period that doted on the exploits of such plucky media heroines as Clare Booth Luce and Amelia Earhart.

But the fact remains that most of Bourke-White’s pictures just aren’t very interesting. In a sense, she never stopped being an industrial photographer. Her pictures are consistently well-crafted but made with a rigid formality—full flash lighting, stiffly posed subjects. In composing her pictures she relied heavily on geometric patterns and repeated forms, a device pioneered by Russian Constructivist photographers and extended by Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus-influenced photographers; however, she combined Modernist formal innovations of this sort with the sentimentality of the Photo Secession (she had studied with Clarence H. White). This happened to be a perfect blend for Life, which aimed at achieving a similar mixture of jazziness and reassuring familiarity in its coverage of events. Bourke-White’s style allowed her to produce a string of iconic images of the sort that Life was famous for—of Gandhi sitting next to his spinning wheel, reading, for example, or of two black South African miners, their sweaty bodies glistening in Bourke-White’s flash.

But as other photojournalists turned increasingly to the miniature camera because of its ability to capture quick glimpses of sudden action, Bourke-White’s ponderous style came to seem increasingly anachronistic. However, with its seeming definitiveness, its simplistic intensification of its subjects, this style remains the backbone of successful commercial photography and indeed of television. As TV has assumed the task of providing pictures of contemporary events to mass audiences, many photojournalists have increasingly become visual sociologists, shifting their attention to situations of less immediate urgency but at least arguably greater long-term importance. In doing so, they have had to adjust their style to allow them to depict more transient and subtle moments. However inappropriate Bourke-White’s bold, declamatory style was to this new form of photojournalism, it was utterly appropriate to her time, and she applied it with remarkable energy and skill.

Charles Hagen