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Margaret Bourke-White

Text from Sean Callahan, Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer

"Margaret Bourke-White's persistence, combined with the prescience of Life picture editor Wilson Hicks, led her to a global scoop and another professional reincarnation: war photographer. When the nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany unraveled in 1941, Life and Bourke-White were ready. Both she and the magazine would achieve new levels of prominence and success.

"It had been nine years since she was last in Russia, and photography by foreigners was still strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, Bourke-White arrived in Moscow with 600 pounds of equipment. Luckily, Soviet officials fondly recalled her earlier work and allowed her to take pictures. She threw herself into documenting all aspects of life in Moscow as well as the surrounding countryside knowing that since her last visit the only images of Russia the West had seen were propaganda pictures.

"In June 1941, a month after she had arrived, Germany invaded Russia. Bourke-White was the only foreign photographer in the capital. On the night the first bombs fell, she, like thousands of Moscovites, was ordered into the subways for safety. The next night she escaped to the U.S. embassy where she stationed her cameras on the roof and photographed the firestorm. In the ensuing weeks of nightly barrages she would grow adept at detecting when the salvos were getting close and would coolly slip inside leaving her shutter on time exposure. Later still, she would shoot the bombings from her hotel room window... "The spectacle is so strange, so remote, that it has no reality in terms of death or danger," she wrote in Portrait of Myself. "But how quickly this feeling of immunity vanishes when one sees people killed!"

"Then, in one more turn of luck for Bourke-White, U.S. Presidential envoy Harry Hopkins arrived for foreign aid discussions with Joseph Stalin. Hopkins, whom she knew from earlier assignments in Washington, secured for her a rare photo session with Stalin, and then carried her film out of the country in a diplomatic pouch and into the waiting hands of Life. As the war took a series of momentous turns that summer, Bourke-White was able to provide her magazine with exclusive coverage of the eastern front.

"She returned to the United States in the fall. But when the U.S. entered the conflict after Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Bourke-White returned to the war zone, this time as the first woman to be accredited by the U.S. armed forces as a war photographer and then as the first woman authorized to fly on a combat mission. She was attached first to the U.S. Army Air Force in England and North Africa, and later to the U.S. Army in Italy and Germany. She repeatedly came under fire during the Italian campaign in a bitterly contested area that GIs nicknamed Purple Heart Valley (which, in 1944, she used as the title of her sixth book). Despite her celebrity, she impressed foot soldier and general alike with her willingness to sleep in foxholes, patrol the skies in fragile, unarmed spotter aircraft, and work in field hospitals under artillery barrage.

"By the spring of 1945, Bourke-White was racing with General George Patton over a collapsing Germany. "No time to think about it or interpret it. Just rush to photograph it," she wrote. Of entering Buchenwald, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, she said, "Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me." Yet, 25 years later, when going over those photographs at her home, she wept.

"After the war and another book, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, a project that helped her understand the brutality she had witnessed, she chafed for another challenge. "My insatiable desire to be on the scene when history was being made was never more nearly fulfilled," she later wrote. "I witnessed that extremely rare event in the history of nations, the birth of twins " For the next two years, starting in 1946, the saga of the independence and subsequent partition of India consumed her attention. She produced regular essays on the subject in Life, and yet another book, Halfway to Freedom. The extended assignment in India allowed every facet of her genius to shine through, whether she was shooting the fevered carnage of race riots or the stately tableaux of pacificism, dignified portraits of wretched poverty or unadorned documents of fabulous wealth. During this period she perfected what biographer and critic Vicki Goldberg called "the posed candid." Bourke-White's masterly control of subject, classical composition, and by now refined sensitivity to the human condition combined to create remarkable, transcendent images..."


 


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