First in their Field: Margaret Bourke-White

I pictured myself as the scientist, going to the jungle, bringing back specimens for natural history museums and doing all the things that women never do

Famed photojournalist, Margaret Bourke- White was born in 1904 in New York, New York. Her interest in photography started at a young age and was greatly encouraged by her father who held a deep interest in cameras. Bourke-White  graduated from Cornell University in 1927, leaving behind a photographic study of the rural campus for the school’s newspaper, including photographs of her famed dormitory Risley Hall.

Fort Peck Dam, Fort Peck, MT, 1936 (First Cover of LIFE)

Bourke-White first gained recognition for her photography in 1927 as an industrial photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She became one of the pioneers of industrial photography, taking pictures of factories and skyscrapers. Her photos sold for $100 each. Her photos even caught the attention of magazine magnate, Henry Luce  who brought her back to New York from Ohio in 1930 to work for Fortune Magazine. She was commissioned to document the building of the Chrysler building, which had become the home of her new studio, where she had  a view to the jutting gargoyles of the building. Also in 1930, Bourke-White became the first foreign photographer to have unlimited access to the Soviet Union. In a 1935 poll she was named one of the 20 most notable American women, and a year later in 1936, was named one of ten.

In 1936 marker another change in Bourke-White’s career as she became LIFE magazine’s first female staff photographer and the first woman to have one of her pictures featured on the magazine’s cover. She also became the first woman war photojournalist, 6b6952d47d430a9a532407d1d7e88d01.jpgcapturing the reality of World War II in Europe and in North Africa. the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II. She was the only photographer in Moscow during the German raid on the Kremlin. She photographed Josef Stalin, bomb raids, and concentration camps. One of her most famous photos she took was a self protrait captured right before she flew in a bombing raid in a B-17. Bourke-White was decked out in flying gear, standing next to the plane. The photo ran in the March 1 issue of LIFE and became one of the Army’s favorite pin-up posters.

Ghandi, 1946 by Bourke-White

Bourke-White continued to travel the world, photographing many well-known historical figures and events including Ghandi and the Korean War until her death from Parkinson’s in 1971.



You can view more of Bourk-White’s iconic photos here

Melissa Jones

Want to learn more about women who were first in their field? Check out the Women’s Museum of California’s digital exhibit.


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