Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was a pioneering American photojournalist. As Staff photographer for the popular life magazine, she captured some of the defining moments of the twentieth century, which often took her to troubled spots around the world. She was the first female war correspondent and Covered combat during the Second World War. The first American to be allowed into the Soviet Union, She travelled through the country documenting its rapid industrialization, and even managed to photography Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin.
Some of Margaret’s most celebrated photographs were taken in India and Pakistan in 1947-48, as the two countries marched towards freedom from British colonial rule. She photographed the times and the leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi (who called her his torturer) and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. She was eyewitness to the migration of millions and the mayhem of communal violence that accompanied the subcontinent’s partition into two independent nations. This body of work forms the focus of this book.
This book is homage to one of the finest woman photojournalists.
Pramod Kumar is a collector of historical records and photographs and a published by profession. He has previously compiled pioneering books like the Unforgettable Maharajas; India: Then and Now and New Delhi: Making of a Capital, and is working on his forthcoming title, Indian century.
Margaret Bourke-White's photographs reproduced in this volume were captured for Life. They are about Life and Time - India's, with its hour-hand reaching climactic moments, and the minute-hand touching, second by inexorable second, the day's grind or its rapture. The photographs observe without commenting,' catch' without trapping. They 'frame'. Bit without decorating the scene for adulation or singling it out for sarcasm. As her flashbulbs turn, in a second's exposure, from clear glass to milky opacity, a moment is lifted as time's offspring from the sequence of its fleeting. It is then placed in the hammock of a rare photographer's art. We can see a laugh set free from the prison of preoccupation, a fear imprisoned by bars of silence. We see death handed by life through a stilled cartwheel. Equally, life perched atop its ending, among the branches of a self- renewing tree.
The great who walk on human feet and the simple who hold their heads high, come on to Margaret Bourke- White's stage from the past, which is so present in this curtain-call
Margaret, you can always be proud that you were invited into the world,' said a mother to her daughter, who would live up to the 'invitation' by creating a truly remarkable life rich in adventure, depth and meaning. The little girl was Margaret Bourke-White, the celebrated photojournalist who documented some of the most cataclysmic and iconic moments of the twentieth century, events that forever changed the course of human history. She was truly one of a kind.
Margaret came into this world on 14 June 1904. Her father, Joseph White, a Polish immigrant of Jewish descent, was a trained printing engineer, while her mother, Minnie Bourke, was an Irish Orthodox Christian, whose father, a carpenter, had died after falling from scaffoldings that were used to build the first few skyscrapers in New York in the 1880s. Both Joseph and Minnie were nature lovers, and were afflicted by the 'bicycle mania' that hit America in the 1890s. On one such nature ride, Minnie's cycle broke down going uphill. Joseph, usually a quiet man, broke his silence a top the mountain and proposed to her. They were married on 14 June 1898.
Margaret was the second of their three children. Joseph and Minnie 'agreed while they were still engaged that they would have intercourse only when they wished to have a child'. Principled and meticulous, they decided that their second child, Margaret, would come into this world on a specific date. This invitation into the world had been set for 13 June, when her mother, Minnie went into labour, but once the doctor learnt that the parents' anniversary was just a day away, he gently put Minnie back to bed and delayed things just long enough. Her friends would later joke that it was for this reason she was never on time, but her biographer Vicki Goldberg noted, 'yet she never once missed an important date with history'.
Given her parents' love for natural history, Margaret grew up in the midst of a variety of pets, ranging from caterpillars to snakes and turtles. She spoke well in class, joined the debating society, became editor of her school's year book, president of the dramatic society, and to top it all, would often turn up in school with a snake around her arm. She almost became a herpetologist, a zoologist who studies amphibians, but her father's love for photography, and his passion to improve photographing techniques, drew her to be his assistant, both in taking pictures and developing them artistically. He encouraged her to study the world of machines, which he thought was as charming as the world of nature.
Her father was also responsible for introducing Margaret to a work ethic that she would hold sacred all her life. 'His positive contribution was to build in me the deepest respect for work,' she wrote in her notes. 'Work is religion to me, the only religion I have.'
After her father's death, when Margaret returned to school, she simultaneously signed up for a two hours a week course with Clarence H. White, one of the first photographers of the time, not to learn photography but design and composition.
At one point Margaret wrote that she never considered becoming a professional photographer until her senior year in college, when she was hired as photography counselor at a camp near her home. She took some great pictures of the camp set against the mountain, often staying up the whole night to get that single picture at the crack of dawn. It was an image that sold in hundreds. A professional photographer was born. 'I am so proud of myself now,' she wrote in her diary. 'I feel as if I could make my living anywhere.'
That one picture had pushed her into a career that would see her at the most troubled spots through the best part of the twentieth century.
She attended the University of Michigan for a while where she began photographing for the Michiganensian, or 'Ensian, the college yearbook. Joe Vlack, who also took pictures for the' Ensian, took her under his wing. He found her attractive and could always persuade her to spend time with him if photography was the object. He confirmed her notion that photography meant adventure. Together they photographed the clock tower from a window in a fourth-floor men's toilet; they thought for a while they'd got themselves locked in for the night. Another evening, Vlack told her that a perfect view lay on the other side of the engineering building's roof. They squeezed out a window and clambered up a rope to the pitched roof. (The first time, her arms weren't strong enough, but she worked on it incessantly in gym class.) They ran, slipping, to the roof, and then slid down the other side. Margaret was scared.. She loved it.
In 1924, Margaret met and married a fellow student, Everett Chapman.When the marriage fell apart two years later, determined not to let its failure hamper her, she shifted to Cornell University and took up photography once more. Upon graduating in 1927, Margaret started a commercial photography studio where she began doing industrial and architectural photography. One of her first major clients was Otis Steel. Her photographs of the steel factory, done using a new style of lighting with magnesium flares, earned her national attention, including that of the legendary publisher, Henry Luce.
Luce, who was on the verge of starting a new business magazine, Fortune, saw the Otis Steel photographs in a Midwestern newspaper. He immediately cabled the as- yet-unknown photographer, saying, 'Harold Wagner has shown me your photographs stop would like to see you stop could you come to New York within a week at Our expense please telegraph when - Henry R Luce Publisher Time the weekly newsmagazine'. When Margaret arrived to meet him, Luce immediately began talking about his plans for the magazine which would prioritize photographs much more than ordinary business Journals. Would she care to join in the adventure?
Margaret jumped at the opportunity, which in six years' time would lead to another, even greater one. Luce had his pulse on the times and realized that America was ready for a magazine that documented the times through photographs. Thus was born the iconic journal, Life, and Margaret was the first photojournalist to be offered a berth. It is this job that would provide her the means and the opportunity to do some of her most celebrated work.
To Margaret, Life seemed like the perfect vehicle to put her work into alignment with her new social awareness. She had written just before Life began, 'People don't realize how serious conditions in this country are .... The new job (Life) will give me more opportunity to work with creative things like this ... I am delighted to be able to turn my back on all advertising agencies and go on to life as it really is.'
She learnt very early in her career that if it's a picture one wanted, the number of images taken or the rolls used was of no consequence. If it wasn't worth a dollar, it was worth nothing. She never stopped after that; she took more photographs than anyone would have thought reasonable. Of course, one camera would never be enough, so she travelled ever after with at least five cameras in tow.
During the mid-1930s, she travelled extensively in the American south to photograph drought victims, and collaborated with the novelist Erskine Caldwell on a book, You Have Seen Their Faces. Though Margaret insisted she wasn't looking for love, or marriage, and went through lovers rapidly, she agreed to marry a persistent Caldwell in 1939. The union was perhaps doomed from the start, ending in divorce three years later due to Caldwell's inability to handle his wife's frequent disappearances on missions abroad.
Margaret's interest in 'life as it really is' would see her travelling from one hotspot to another, becoming the first woman photographer to cover war during the Second World War, where she documented the concentration camp at Buchenwald when it was liberated. As the first American photographer to be allowed into the Soviet Union, Margaret wangled an entry into the Kremlin to photograph Joseph Stalin. Expecting a towering figure, in accordance with the hoardings she had seen all over the Soviet Union, Margaret was shocked to find a short, pockmarked man who wouldn't be drawn into conversation. As she set about photographing him, her flashbulbs fell out from her pocket and went bouncing all over the floor. As she and her interpreter raced after them, Stalin burst into laughter. It had faded into a smile by the time Margaret got her camera working. Once more, she had got a historical photograph.
'Margaret Bourke-White became a historic figure while she was still making history,' wrote her biographer Vicki Goldberg. 'Her name, face and photographs were known to millions.' Richard Attenborough in his Oscar-winner Gandhi chose Candice Bergman to portray Margaret as Gandhi's 'torturer', a name given to her by the Mahatma himself. Her photographs of India, according to Vicki Goldberg, are her 'most sustained body of work. They offer a kind of stately, classical view of misery, of humanity at its most wretched, yet somehow noble, somehow beautiful.' The subjects are monumental, posed, dramatic, and the philosophy of life is:' despair over man's inhumanity to man, but a promise that human beings are worthy of compassion and may yet be saved.'
Life magazine commissioned her to cover the exchange of populations that accompanied the partition of India and the birth of two nations. For days she travelled taking photographs of people leaving their homes for an uncertain destiny - 'All roads between India and Pakistan were choked with streams of refugees. In scenes reminiscent of the Biblical times, hordes of displaced people trudged across the newly created borders to an uncertain future.'
She was there to catch the tragedy of the ordinary' man caught up in extraordinary events. She was there to photograph Gandhi at his spinning wheel. She was there to photograph Jinnah with his fez. And soon after, both men were to meet their Maker. Difference was that while one had become a Mahatma or saint, the other could barely conceal the 'bitterness of his victory turning stale in his mouth'.
Margaret's many loves were legendary, and in India too, there were many who were enchanted by her. During a train-ride to Shimla, the 'polished-to-the-fingertips' journalist Frank Moraes fell in love with her. He took her by the hand to meet everyone who was anyone in the hurly-burly of Indian politics. Though, for Margaret, the relationship remained a brief dalliance, not one that could penetrate her carefully constructed independence and her single-minded focus on her work.
With all her achievements, fame, sense of excitement, and her unwillingness to entertain regret, Margaret asked much more of life than most people can hope for. But then, her accomplishments were so vast she could be said to have given the world as good as she got, and much of her achievement is still alive in memory and on the printed page.
As early as 1927, she knew she wanted to be famous and she wanted to be wealthy. But fame always came first. She who seemed so self-involved, whose career used up free assistance as fast as film, did not forget a close friend. he had a capacity for loyalty and thoughtfulness that was narrowly directed but infinitely deep.
But an ill-wind was blowing her way. In 1956, at the age of forty-seven, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's. For eighteen years, the disease would become her greatest 'assignment', a project she threw herself in with the rigorous optimism that had stood her in good stead throughout her life. For a while, embarrassed by her body's progressive debilitation, she hid her disease. Then, in 1958, she collaborated with a colleague from Life, Alfred Eisenstaedt, on an article on Parkinson's and an experimental surgical procedure that she had undergone. The article, when it appeared in Life, became hugely popular and brought her back into the consciousness of millions. It also helped her view her illness as part of her work, something that helped her overcome her fear of it, and ultimately, of death.
Life continued to send her on assignments, but soon, she couldn't manage the work. In 1971, a fall rendered her immobile, and soon, resultant complications ended her life. The camera had slipped from the grasp of the most famous photojournalist of the era, almost at the same time as the golden age of photojournalism was drawing to a close, challenged by television. A year after her death, her beloved Life ceased publication in the format that had become popular in Margaret's heyday, and which she had helped popularize to a great extent.
As for summing up her life, Vicki Goldberg says it best. 'Taken all in all, it was a good life - at least the woman who lived it thought so - and she lived it fully to the very last step on the road.'
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