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History For The World To See

May 2024
6min read

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: the early issues seemed drab and dispiriting, their gray glimpses of ruins and animals and remote tribes long superseded by better views in color published in its own pages.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 .

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 .

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