Happy Women's History Month! Today on our blog, we feature a guest post from author Alex Lichtenstein, who discusses Margaret Bourke-White and how she broke barriers for female photojournalists.
By Alex Lichtenstein
My favorite moment while researching the book Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid came when I stumbled across correspondence between Bourke-White and her then husband, writer Erskine Caldwell. Margaret and “Skinny” Caldwell fell in love in 1936 while driving the back roads of Georgia and Alabama for their collective portrait of the rural poor, You Have Seen Their Faces. Four years later, Margaret was in Europe, photographing the war for Life Magazine. Caldwell sent her plaintive letters, begging her to return home and settle down with him. She refused, reminding him that covering the war, not playing house, was her priority. When she returned, they soon divorced.
Although the book Rick Halpern and I have produced about Bourke-White focuses on her experiences documenting South African apartheid in 1950, her story is shot through with many such fierce assertions of female independence in an era in which such behavior was not expected, even of highly accomplished women like Bourke-White. To be sure, she was part of a generation of important female photojournalists and documentarians, including Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Berenice Abbot, Lee Miller, and Gerda Taro. Yet her willingness to take risks, to refuse to bend to what was seen as a “woman’s place,” and to thus find herself at the right place at the right time, continue to stand out. No doubt it was such persistence and daring that convinced Henry Luce to hire her as one of the first four staff photographers (and the only woman among them) for Life.
Although she made a living during the early years of the Great Depression working for advertising agencies, Bourke-White’s first passion was industrial photography. Her ability to capture the majesty and beauty of industrial production was not merely an aesthetic triumph. Early on in her career she had to exercise boldness, persuasion, and diplomacy all at once to gain entry to work sites that rarely allowed access to women—steel mills, coal mines, and metal-casting plants, for example. This experience stood her in good stead when she spent time in South Africa in 1950. Remarkably, she persuaded the owners of the Robinson deep gold mine to allow her to descend two miles underground into the mine, as well as to photograph inside the all-male barracks to which African workers were confined when they were not at work. She also prevailed on a prison warden to allow her to photograph inside a convict camp—just as she had when she had travelled with Caldwell in the US South.
Another area in which Bourke-White pioneered was aerial photography. Her first commissions were from commercial airlines like TWA, but when war came, Bourke-White was able to parlay this unusual skill into a truly unique assignment for a female photographer. She served as what today we would call an “embedded” photojournalist with the US Air Force, thus breaking a major barrier as the first female accredited combat photographer in the United States. Despite having her boat torpedoed on a journey to North Africa, she accompanied Allied flyers on numerous bombing raids, which she photographed from the air.
Caldwell should not have been surprised by her independent streak. Such adventures seem typical of this intrepid woman’s career. Over the course of little more than a decade, her many journeys took her from Soviet Russia during the first five-year plan, to Czechoslovakia on the eve of annexation by Hitler, to Moscow during the initial Nazi bombardment in 1941, to combat on the Italian peninsula during the 1943 campaign, and finally, to the liberated concentration camps of the Third Reich in May 1945. Nor did such engagement with the most dramatic moments in world history end with the war. In 1947 and 1948 she was in India, where she witnessed the brutal violence of partition, and met with M.K. Gandhi only hours before his assassination.
In her 1963 autobiography, Bourke-White described her “insatiable desire to be on the scene while history is being made.” This drive, Rick and I argue, made Bourke-White an expert witness to the unfolding tragedy of postwar South Africa. But it also made her capable of breaking many barriers that had kept female photojournalists on the sidelines for too long.
Alex Lichtenstein is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. His new book with Rick Halpern, Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid, will be released next month.