New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 8 February 19 to 26, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Margeret Bourke-White

Photographer of an Era

Andrea Ongaro
“Russian worker on the turbine shell of the Dnejprostroj-hydro-electric power” by Margaret Bourke-White. Source: berlinartlink.com
Margaret Bourke-White, "“Russian worker on the turbine shell of the Dnejprostroj-hydro-electric power”" 1930

It was the daybreak of the twentieth century when the machine, a well known friend nowadays, began to be valued not only for its use, but for its look as well. America in the 1920s and the early 1930s was increasingly a machine-driven culture and with few exceptions the world of photography was ruled by men as well. One exceptions was Margaret Bourke-White, the first woman to join magazines such as Fortune and Life, whose work is now showing in two big side rooms of the Martin Gropius Bau.

Her career began in the steel mills of Cleveland, when she started photographing industrial machinery in 1927. In most of her pictures she chooses impressive angles and cuts with an extremely modern visual language. It’s impossible not to think of a filmic masterpiece that handles the same subject, but with a diametrically opposite approach: Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. Both artists were dealing with industrialization around the same years, which is not an oddity, but while Chaplin’s character struggles humorously to survive in the modern world, Bourke-White’s New Objectivity style presents industrial elements and hard facts as they are.

In 1930, Bourke-White was the first foreign photographer to travel to the Soviet Union. In this particular series of pictures, realized between ’30 and ’32, Bourke-White adopts a more journalistic and documentary approach. Her role as photojournalist along with Soviet faith in industry lead Bourke-White to turn her attention to living conditions in the Soviet Union. Eventually she had the opportunity to photograph Stalin and this portrait – exposed in the exhibit – is probably one of the most renowned images of the dictator.

The Reverend Spiegelhoff from Milwaukee and American GIs at the mass in the Cologne cathedral by Margaret Bourke-White . Source: berlinartlink.com
Margaret Bourke-White , "The Reverend Spiegelhoff from Milwaukee and American GIs at the mass in the Cologne cathedral"

As a Life photographer, Bourke-White was again sent to Europe just before the outbreak of World War II. During her extensive journey she had the chance to take some extraordinary pictures from the roof of the American embassy while the Germans were bombing Moscow in July 1941. Ironically, those pictures look like massive fireworks— abstract compositions made out of light scratches. Later she was a war photographer to the U.S. Air Force in 1943, the very first time for a woman. And she was there when the Allies liberated the first concentration camp in Buchenwald. The horror she witnessed has left us images that should be considered among the most important visual documents of our time.

Pushed onward by an “unquenchable desire to be present when history is made” and the will of being the “eyes of the age”, as she herself put it, Bourke-White has been at the right place in the right moment many times. Her pictures stand for an era.

Margeret Bourke-White

Photographer of an Era
by Andrea Ongaro

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