Margaret Bourke-White Biography

Paper Type:  Biography
Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1577 Words
Date:  2022-10-13


Margaret Bourke-White was one of the most accomplished photographers of her time. As one the few women photographers of the early part of the century, Bourke-White embraced photography wholeheartedly from a tender age, enabling her to scale the heights of photography to a level where few would have expected. From a humble background, she rose to become one of the highly respected photographers during the mid 20th century. Throughout her career, Bourke-White not only traveled around the world during which she photographed significant events of the 20th century and influenced how people perceived photography but also helped highlight social injustices around the world.

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Early Life

Bourke-White was born in June 1904 in the City of New York to Minnie Bourke and Joseph White. Minnie Bourke was a daughter of an English cook and an Irish ship's carpenter whereas Joseph was a son to Polish-Jewish immigrants. Bourke-White had an elder sister known as Ruth and a younger brother named Roger. Joseph was an inventor who worked as an engineer with a printing press while her mother worked on books for the blind (Welch 4). The occupation of her parents would later play an essential role in her career in the media industry.

Like many other children, Margret's childhood experience made a critical contribution to her rise and eventual success as a photographer. As a child, Margret enjoyed dancing and performed in concerts alongside her sister Ruth. Margret loved performing dance recitals in schools, and this made her develop an outgoing personality. At the same time, she showed great admiration for snakes, insects, frogs, and birds. She could feed birds and carry snakes even inside their home. Her closeness to snakes as child and teenager was so intense that she once aspired to study snakes upon joining college (Keller 13-15). However, this aspiration never came to be as subsequent exposures diverted her attention to photography.

The nature of parenting also played a vital part in shaping the direction Margret's career. Her parents taught her to be the best by exploiting her potential to the fullest. Although both parents contributed significantly to her career development, the influence of the father was more impactful in choosing photography. During her childhood, Joseph loved taking photographs, and the house was mounted with several pictures ranging from those relating to nature and also his life in the printing press. One instance that remained memorable and influential in her decision to pursue photography was the visit to the printing machines at the father's workplace. The view of the printing press machines mesmerized her, and that experience left lingering in her mind for a long time (Keller 14-15). Perhaps the desire to share the experience at the printing press with others motivated her to resolve that photography was necessary to capture these images for those that could not afford to experience such sceneries. Since Margret used to walk around with his father, she also developed an interest in photography and, as a result, would imitate her father by 'taking' photos using a cigar box as a camera (Keller 15). These influences marked a turning in the career of Margret as it is at this point that she resolved to pursue photography as a career.

School and College

Bourke-White enrolled in local public schools in Bound Brook, following the relocation of the family to New Jersey. At school, she showed talent in both art and writing. For instance, she served as an editor of a yearbook and demonstrated great writing skills (Keller 17-18). In the summer of 1921, she enrolled for dancing and swimming classes at Rutgers University. Afterward, she joined Columbia University in New York to study art. At the same time, she enrolled for a course with Clarence H. White-who believed that photographs should appear as paintings- to study photography as an art (Keller 19). Although the father was an avid seasoned photographer and experimented with the lens in several occasions, Margret did not hold a camera for a photo exercise until 1921. The camera was bought for her by her mother immediately after the death of Joseph (IPHF By this time, it was apparent that she would pursue photography as a career. Margret graduated from college 1927 and thereafter opened a studio in Cleveland (ICP, marking the begging of her professional career as a photojournalist.

Professional Career

As a professional, Bourke-White played an influential role in photojournalism as a pioneer woman. Photojournalism entails telling stories about news events through pictures. As a woman, it was difficult venturing into a career that society never expected women to explore. However, her child experience and family influence motivated her to pursue her dream. While reflecting on the experiences of women during her time, Margret observed that, as a child, she pictured herself as a scientist going into the jungle and to collect specimens for natural history and also engaging in the manner of things that women never did (IPHF Such personality shows a woman who wants to break away from the norms of the time to pursue her dream. This character depicts Margret as one of the women liberators of the 20th century.

One area that Bourke-White played a pioneering contribution is industrial photography. She grew up in an era where magazines were non-existent-people relied on newspapers to access information about news events (Welch 4). This is what Bourke-White sought to fill as a photographer. The beauty and lore of industry reignited her desire to capture the images she saw as a child after opening her studio in one of the skyscrapers in Cleveland. For instance, the pictures of Otis Steel Mills, which she sold at $100 each, propelled Bourke-White onto the national stage of industrial photography. Consequently, in a 1935 poll, she was named among the top 20 notable American women with the ranking rising to the 10th position in the 1936 survey (IPHF However, her experience on the international stage on industrial photography put Bourke-White in contention as one of the leading industrial photographers of her time.

An international experience that is considered remarkable is the photography experience in the Soviet Union. While working in the Soviet Union, Bourke-White delivered one of the powerful pictures about the development of industry in Russia. In particular, she was so intrigued by industrialization that she wanted to tell the story of industrialization in the form of pictures. In her 1931 book Eyes on Russia, Bourke-White describes her hypnotism about the "new God of Russia, the Tractor." The photographs obtained recorded in the book depict the rise of Russia as a technological powerhouse of the time. She images portrayed the Soviets as a people with great ingenuity in technology as well as well glorified technology as the source of transformation in agriculture and manufacturing (Haran 73-74). Her experience in Russia would later make her shift her focus of photography to features of people's experiences around the globe.

One of the issues she encountered in Russia and later Nazi Germany, India, South America, and South Africa were the squalid conditions in which people and the lack of social justice. The sight of people suffering changed the focus of the photographer. While working for the Fortune Magazine, she took heart-wrenching images of poverty in Russia, Nazi Germany, and South America. Her photographs brought into the international stage the level of poverty in these countries and other parts of the world, thereby enhancing the level of awareness of Americans regarding the economic experiences of lives non-Americans. Her ability to penetrate difficult regions made her receive accreditation as the first female documentary photographer of the American forces in the Second World War (IPHF

Regarding social Justice, Bourke-White highlighted issues related to social justice and the independence of nations then occupied by the British and other colonial powers. For instance, she filmed the struggle for freedom in India under Mohandas Gandhi. In her photography, she captured, through the pictures, the painful experiences of Indians under the British (IPHF At the same time, Bourke-White pioneered photographic essays to communicate more information to her audiences about matters relating to social justice. Notably, while in a mission in South Africa working for the Fortune Magazine, she not only documents the cruelty of apartheid in her photography but also wrote scathing essays about the Voortrekker Monument and racial discrimination of black South Africans(Mason 155-56). This area of photography would receive much of her attention in photography until her death in 1971.


On the whole, Bourke-White pioneered photography in many ways. She played an influential role in promoting industrial photography. She also emphasized imagery to bring to the fore the various social experiences of different people around the world. By the time of her death in 1971, she had not only established herself as one the most celebrated photographers of her time but also created a legacy that remained a motivation for women in many years that followed.

Works Cited

Haran, Barnaby. "Tractor Factory Facts: Margaret Bourke-White's Eyes on Russia and the Romance of Industry in the Five-Year Plan." Oxford Art Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, 2015, pp. 73-93.

International Center of Photography. "Margaret Bourke-White." Margaret Bourke-White, 6 Nov. 2018,

International Photography Hall of Fame. "Margaret Bourke." International Photography Hall of Fame, 2018,

Keller, Emily. Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer's Life. Twenty-First Century Books, 1996.

Mason, John E. "Picturing the Beloved Country: Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine, and South Africa, 1949-1950." Kronos, vol. 38, no. 1, 2012, pp. 154-176.

Welch, Catherine A. Margaret Bourke-White. Millbrook Press, 2011.

Cite this page

Margaret Bourke-White Biography. (2022, Oct 13). Retrieved from

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