- Historic Sites
History For The World To See
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Once, when she was faced with a complicated portrait sitting, the journalist Ralph Graves volunteered to change each of several flashbulbs for her after every shot. Twice, totally focused on her subject, she forgot Graves was at work, firing off the flash and burning his hand. She apologized. But when her subject assumed an interesting new pose, she did it again. The flash seared Graves’s hand a third time. “She turned to look at me,” he remembered, “with an extraordinary expression: profound regret that she had done it to me again—coupled with absolute triumph that she had got the perfect picture at such a small cost.”
Others paid the cost of her pictures quite often. Her assistants got little thanks; the vital charm with which she persuaded her subjects to cooperate with her—to “obey” her, she once said—was rarely wasted on them.
She was a combination, as Goldberg writes, of “concrete and tulle,” utterly unblinking about power and how a handsome young woman might get it in a man’s world. Although she became a heroine to young women—there was even a comic book about her exploits, meant to inspire little girls—for her, sisterhood was powerless. Women were unimportant if you wanted to get ahead.
Men were different. Her looks and charm helped her get assignments- though her biographer concludes that a quid pro quo was rarely, if ever, exacted. Bourke-White’s romances were conducted on her own time. She was striking rather than beautiful, more energetic and intense than amusing, but her impact on men was devastating. When the young Dwight Macdonald was assigned to work with her and went to meet her at Grand Central Station, he dropped his suitcase when he first saw her, spilling all the clothing it contained across the floor of the waiting room.
When starting out, she deliberately wore low-cut blouses, then leaned pliantly across prospective clients’ desks to point out the pictures in her portfolio. “What a lucky lady 1 am,” she wrote in her diary in those days. “I can do anything I want with these men, and through it all I like them.”
That seems clear, although whether it was the men themselves or the power she so effortlessly wielded over them that meant the most to her is difficult to tell. She married and left two men (the second was the novelist Erskine Caldwell), each of them like her father in his moody remoteness, neither of them able to accept the fact that her work came first. And she had affairs, long and short, with a truly startling number of others—so many, according to her biographer, that when she refused publicly to kiss one longtime lover who had taken her to the London airport, he seriously “wondered if she was fearful of narrowing her options on the transatlantic flight.”
She was certainly not the only roving photographer to whom seduction seemed a part of the job description. “Property of Robert Capa, great war correspondent and lover” was scrawled inside the helmet that photographer wore on the Italian front during World War II, and he worked hard at making good on both pledges. So did plenty of his imitators.
The difference, of course, was that Bourke-White was a woman who excelled in a field dominated by men, a fact that fascinated the press as much as it later infuriated her male colleagues (long before she worked tor Life she was being written up under headlines such as THIS DARING CAMERA GIRL SCALES SKYSCRAPERS FOR ART ).
With an artist’s lusty ego, she sometimes seemed to fancy that the world itself was intent upon posing for her. In 1943 she rode along on a bombing run over Tunisia. When antiaircraft fire began to explode around the plane, the pilot took evasive action. Bourke-White assumed the bomber’s plunging, twisting flight had been arranged for her benefit, and as bursts of flak came closer, the crew listened to her exult over the intercom: “Oh, that’s just what I want, that’s a beautiful angle! Roll me over quick. Hold me just like this. Hold me this way so I can shoot straight down!”
Her early work had romanticized the machinery her father had taught her to love and, although depression and war had encouraged her to see human beings as more than props added for scale, the composition continued to come before anything else. Lee Eitington, a former Life reporter, remembered working with her to capture one of her most celebrated pictures, a long silhouetted line of Sikh refugees fleeing Pakistan on foot at the time of India’s partition in 1947: “We were there for hours. … She found a group she liked. She told them to go back again and again and again. They were too frightened to say no. They were dying .”
“Work is a religion to me, the only religion I have,” she once wrote, echoing her father. “Work is something you can count on, a trusted, life-long friend who never deserts you.”
But it did desert her at the end. She fought gallantly against Parkinson’s disease for seventeen years, unable for most of that time even to grip her camera. It was a lonely struggle. One man, who saw her often over a three-month period while writing a television script about her, recalled encountering no other visitor in all that time.
Finally, only her bright, inquiring eyes remained mobile inside her rigid body, and she died in August of 1971. A little more than a year later, so did the weekly Life .