History For The World To See

PrintPrintEmailEmail

My grandfather, Connecticutbred, was a saver. Nothing was willingly discarded: stamps, golf clubs with shattered handles, coins, clippings, top hats, toys from his childhood, and, toward the end of his long life, even aluminum TV dinner trays—scoured-out, nested, and tied with twine in bundles of a dozen.

He saved magazines too, neat stacks of them at the top of the attic stairs, covered with cloth to keep off the dust. Every issue of National Geographic was piled there. So was every copy of Life , and during one early visit I gravely decided that I would read through both runs in chronological order. I couldn’t stay with the Geographic : the early issues seemed drab and dispiriting, their gray glimpses of ruins and animals and remote tribes long superseded by better views in color published in its own pages.

But Life was irresistible, and as I eagerly lugged armloads of the oversized magazines up and down the stairs while my grandparents napped, I had the almost guilty sense that I was being allowed to look directly into the world my father and mother had known but I had not. Life would let me catch up.

The cover of the very first issue- November 23, 1936—hooked me, four huge pylons of the Fort Peck Dam, the largest earthen structure in the world, freshly built by the Public Works Administration but photographed somehow as if they had been out there in Montana since Eden. The picture essay inside held me too. It was the first picture essay ever published in America, a portrait of the people who built the dam and lived in the tiny boomtown of New Deal.

Cover and essay were both by Margaret Bourke-White, and as 1 turned the big, crackling pages of subsequent issues, I began to see that her pictures were often more vivid, more dramatic, more monumental than those made by her colleagues. At her best she had the eerie power to make her vision of people and events become our memory of them. Even now I cannot hear the word Buchenwald , for example, without recalling her frieze of numbed, staring survivors still behind barbed wire; the apparently perpetual misery of South Africa continues to bring to my mind’s eye her portrait of two weary young black miners at the bottom of a gold mine.

Her aim, she once wrote, was to help “expand the pictorial files of history for the world to see. Just one inch in a long mile.” That was for public consumption. In her diary she was more frank: “I want to become famous and I want to become wealthy,” she wrote in 1927, long before she was either. She certainly became famous, almost as much for the fearlessness with which she tackled assignments then thought best left to men—industry, war, political chaos—as for the pictures she brought back.

As Margaret Bourke-White [Harper & Row], an excellent new biography by Vicki Goldberg, demonstrates, her real life was every bit as vivid and theatrical as her pictures—or her legend. She went everywhere, photographed everything, had affairs with (almost) everybody. How People would have loved her!

Bourke-White’s hyphenated credit line was her own idea, combining her mother’s maiden name with her father’s last, and she herself seems to have been an amalgam of her curious parents’ qualities. Her mother was a driven perfectionist who encouraged her daughter to inquire into things, to be fearless, but also hemmed her in with eccentric strictures: no potatoes, no funny papers, no friends who read funny papers. Her father, an inventor, was grim too; he often sat for hours without speaking, absorbed in his projects. “Work, work, work,” he once told Margaret in an uncharacteristically voluble moment. “That’s the watchword, that’s the cry … that’s what we know to be our salvation.”

Margaret revered him and shared his fascination with the world of machinery, the “secret world,” Goldberg writes, that he had shown her “and that other girls had never seen.”

She was a shy girl, bright but humorless, who hid her shyness beneath a distinctly unconventional exterior; while in high school she announced she would be a herpetologist (her father had also been a naturalist) and attended classes with snakes wound around her arms. It is not surprising that she was respected rather than liked by her classmates. Later, working for Life , she kept two fullgrown alligators in her studio, and had her tailor run up camera hoods in colors to match her designer outfits.

She began making photographs in college, first in the cottony style of the pictorialists, then, truer to her late father’s vision, seeking out a stark, abstract beauty in the gears and smokestacks and open-hearth mills of the Machine Age. For the first issue of Fortune , she managed to find handsome patterns even in the heads of hogs moving along a packinghouse assembly line.

Always, the picture, the work, was everything. For Life she dangled from helicopters, faced down mobs, survived a submarine sinking. When German bombs blew in all the windows in the American Embassy in Moscow, burying her beneath a mound of broken glass, she gingerly rose and ran out for her equipment, leaving behind signs on all the highest heaps of shards saying: PLEASE DON’T SWEEP UP GLASS TILL I GET BACK WITH CAMERA .