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Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936
The first major exhibition devoted to the critical early years in the life
and work of photographer Margaret Bourke-White is on view at The Phillips Collection
in Washington, DC, through May 11. “Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography
of Design, 1927–1936,” comprising approximately 140 photographs,
will be the first exhibition to explore fully her important early images.
Bourke-White enrolled at Columbia University in the fall of 1921 and in the spring took a photography class with Clarence H. White, one of the greatest photographers of the period. Through his class, she encountered Arthur Wesley Dow’s theories of composition, which focused on modern design and principles of abstraction. During college she discovered that her photography could generate income, and she subsequently built her career not only on her talent as a photographer, but also on her understanding of what her images could do for corporate identity. Bourke-White moved to Cleveland in 1927, at a time when the city was experiencing expansive industrial and economic growth. Other women photographers at the time—Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange—had begun their careers as portrait photographers; but Bourke-White recognized early on the power of the industrial photograph, both as an aesthetic medium and a lucrative source of income.
By 1928, Bourke-White’s photographs were appearing in newspapers and
magazines across the United States. In 1929, Bourke-White was invited to become
the “star photographer” for the new Luce publication, Fortune magazine.
Luce’s plan was to use photography to document all aspects of business
and industry, an idea that had never been tried before. Bourke-White’s
career is unimaginable without her relationship with Luce’s media empire.
Her swashbuckling style, her ingenious and relentless self-promotion in an age
that admired self-made men and their fortunes, her reverence for industry itself,
and her photographic homage to capitalism and technology made her the perfect
lens for Luce’s vision.
Bourke White returned to the United States with a greater sympathy for the
suffering of the American worker. In July 1935 she discussed her desire to develop
“a candid camera technique” with Fortune’s editor, explaining
“While it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke
stacks or a row of dynamos, it is becoming more and more important to reflect
the life that goes on behind these photographs.”
In 1956, Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and gradually withdrew from professional photography. She died in Connecticut on August 21, 1971, from complications brought on by a fall.
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936, on view through
May 11 at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC 20009-1090.
For more information, call 202/387-2151, or visit www.phillipscollection.org.