On this day in 1904 was the birth of Margaret Bourke-White, an American photographer known for being the first American female war photojournalist, the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry, and the first female photographer for “Life” Magazine, where she took the picture for the first cover. Though Margaret was interested in photography as a young woman thanks to her father’s interest in cameras, she studied herpetology at Columbia University before leaving after the death of her father. After attending several different colleges, as well as getting married and then divorcing two years later, she eventually graduated from Cornell University in 1927, then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she started a commercial photography studio.
Some of Margaret’s first work began at Otis Steel Company, where she first met barriers due to her gender, among other things. In part their hesitancy to allow her to photograph was because steel-making was a defense industry involved in national security, but mostly it was because she was a woman, and people in the industry wondered if she and her cameras could stand up to the conditions of the hot, dirty, dangerous steel mill. Despite that, Margaret not only got permission, she pushed boundaries by bringing along a new style of flash (magnesium flare) which allowed her to take some of the best steel factory photographs of the era.
Eventually Margaret moved on, becoming an associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine until 1935; it was during this time that she became the first Western photographer who was allowed to photograph Soviet industry. In 1936 she was hired by Henry Luce for Life magazine as their first female photographer; her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam construction site became the magazine’s first cover in November of 1936. She stayed on and off at the magazine until she retired in 1969, and during her career there she was also known for photographing victims of the Dust Bowl. One of her most famous photographs was taken of black flood victimsstanding in front of a sign which declared “World’s Highest Standard of Living”; a sign featuring a white family. The photograph was published in Life in 1937, and went on to be the basis for the artwork of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today.
Margaret also traveled to Europe before and during World War II, where she took a rare photograph of Joseph Staloin smiling, along with portraits of his mother and great-aunt. She became the first female war correspondent during WW2, as well as the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. When German forces invaded Moscow, Margaret was the only foreign photographer present, and she took refuge in the U.S. Embassy while photographing and capturing the attack on camera. She eventually became attached to the U.S. Army Air Force in North Africa, and then the U.S. Army first in Italy (where she came under fire numerous times) and Germany. Referring to an incident where an troopship she was on crashed in the Mediterranean, an article once said, “The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed, was known to the Life staff as ‘Maggie the Indestructible.’”
After WW2, during which she also photographed a concentration camp following the collapse of the German army, Margaret produced a book titled Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, which was an attempt to help her come to terms with everything she had seen. Not that she stopped there, of course; she is also well-known in India and Parkistan for chronicling the violence that followed the independence and separation of the two countries, as well as her photographs of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and also Mohandas K. Gandhi… who she interviewed and photographed just hours before his assassination in 1948.
In 1953, Margaret developed Parkinson’s disease and began to slow down her career. Despite her previous fame as a photographer, towards the end of her life she could no longer cover her health-care costs, in part because she tended towards personal generosity in giving away her money. She died from the disease in 1971 at the age of 67, but her photographs can still be scene today in the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (NY), and in the collection at the Library of Congress.