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Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936
January 20, 2005 - March 20, 2005
(above: Margaret Bourke-White (United
States, 1904-1971), Chrysler: Gears, 1929, 13 1/4 x 9 1/16 inches)
The first major exhibition devoted to the critical early years in the life and work of photographer Margaret Bourke-White will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, January 20, 2005 through March 20, 2005. Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936, featuring approximately 150 photographs, is the first exhibition to fully explore her important early images, many of which have not been seen by the general public since the early 1930s. The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (right: Margaret Bourke-White (United States, 1904-1971), Self-Portrait, 1943. Courtesy Sandor Family Collection.)
Beginning with her earliest pictorialist view of Cleveland's Terminal Tower in 1927 and culminating with her well-known 1936 photographs for the cover and lead story of the first issue of Life magazine, the exhibition will explore the formative years in Bourke-White's career, during which she developed her aesthetic vision and forged new territory into the field of photojournalism.
Bourke-White, one of the 20th century's best-known female photographers, strode brazenly into a field dominated by men to become not only a famous photojournalist but also a celebrity personality. Trained in modernist compositional techniques, Bourke-White photographed with an artist's eye, discovering beauty in the raw aesthetic of American industry and its factories. Her 1929 photograph Chrysler, Gears emphasizes the immensity of the gear; the worker, placed barely inside the frame, is there only to provide a sense of scale.
By 1928, Bourke-White's photographs were appearing in newspapers and magazines across the United States. From 1928 until 1936, she supported herself through corporate and magazine assignments and advertising. Her magazine work, though less lucrative than the corporate assignments, allowed for abstraction and compositional freedom. In these forceful works, it is apparent that she understood the drama of the diagonal and the curve. She framed many of her photographs so that similarly shaped forms appeared repeatedly on a diagonal across the field of view and seemed to continue into infinite space beyond. In Oliver Chilled Plow: Plow Blades, 1930, a close-up of the shiny steel surfaces verges on complete abstraction.
In 1929, Bourke-White was invited to become the "star photographer" for the new Luce publication, Fortune magazine. Luce's plan was to use photography to document all aspects of business and industry, an idea that had never been tried before. Bourke-White's career is unimaginable without her relationship with Luce's media empire. Her swashbuckling style, her ingenious and relentless self-promotion in an age that admired self-made men and their fortunes, her reverence for industry itself, and her photographic homages to capitalism and technology made her the perfect lens for Luce's vision. (left: Margaret Bourke-White (United States, 1904-1971), Life: Fort Peck Dam, Montana: Diversion Tunnel, 1936, 19 1/2 x 14 inches)
Bourke-White moved to New York City in 1930 and later that year was sent abroad to capture the rapidly growing German industry. Greater ambitions for this trip took her to the Soviet Union, where no foreign journalist had previously been allowed to document the country's progress. The Soviet Union had built more than 1,500 factories since 1928 under a rapid industrialization plan, and Bourke-White was intent on capturing its growth on film: "With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me." The Soviet images differ from her other work in their incorporation of human subjects as the emphasis. In fact, the photographs from the USSR are overwhelmingly narrative and were a significant step for Bourke-White in her development as a photojournalist. To supplement her salary from Fortune, Bourke-White accepted several assignments to produce mural-size photographs, which culminated in 1933 when NBC hired her to create the biggest photographic mural in America for the rotunda of their studios in Rockefeller Center. In 1935 she began taking aerial photographs for several airlines, which gave her skills that she used on many of her future photographic assignments. (right: Margaret Bourke-White (United States, 1904-1971), Aluminum Company of America: Wire, 1930, 13 7/16 x 10 3/16 inches. ©Margaret Bourke-White/TimePix)
The exhibition venue schedule is as follows:
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 has been organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The exhibition is supported by the Phillips Contemporaries and Trellis Fund.
Wall text for the exhibition:
Margaret Bourke-White (1904 1971) was one of the great chroniclers of the Machine Age. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the first decade of her career, she photographed the implements, processes, and output of industry. These were not merely documentary photographs; they were tour-de-force images, showing her grasp of modern design and aesthetics. Through close-ups, dramatic cross-lighting, and unusual perspectives, she presented the industrial environment as artful compositions. By romanticizing the tremendous power of industry and machinery, she captured beauty in a world not usually considered beautiful. Soon her work caught the eye of corporate executives and magazine publishers, propelling Bourke-White to the forefront of photography and journalism in the twentieth century. In less than ten years-from her first industrial photographs in Cleveland in 1927 to her appointment as the first photographer for Fortune magazine in 1929 to her cover photograph and lead story for the first issue of Life magazine in 1936-Bourke-White was on her way to becoming an American legend.
Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 has been organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
This exhibition is supported by the Phillips Contemporaries and Trellis Fund.
Born in New York in 1904, Margaret Bourke-White was raised in Bound Brook, New Jersey by highly educated parents who instilled in her both the courage and the ambition to be whatever she wanted to be. Her father, an inventor and engineer, introduced his daughter to the world of machines and to photography. As a freshman at Columbia University in the spring of 1922, Bourke-White took a photography class with Clarence H. White, one of the great photographers of the period. Through his class, she encountered Arthur Wesley Dow's theories of composition. Heavily influenced by principles of Asian aesthetics, Dow valued two-dimensional rhythm and harmony above three-dimensional modeling of forms and imitation of nature. Bourke-White claimed she was not influenced by particular photographers of her time. However, she certainly was aware of modern style and abstract design, which permeated magazines and films in the time.
Graduating from Cornell University in 1927, Bourke-White moved to Cleveland, where she hoped to make her living photographing that vibrant industrial city. At first, she was commissioned to take shots of grand estates, but on her own time she photographed the industrial side of the city. Soon she was hired as the official photographer of the new Terminal Tower, which helped to make her famous in Cleveland. This rising prominence gave her access to the place she really wanted to photograph-the guarded and gated interior of the Otis Steel Company. Traveling to the steel mill every night during the winter of 1927 1928, Bourke-White discovered the difficult nature of her subject. The first prints were almost black. Even with floodlights and flash pans, she could not achieve any contrast beyond pale shades of gray. Just as she was becoming totally discouraged, she learned of magnesium flares to light the interior of the steel mill and a new type of photographic paper with high silver content to capture a wide range of tones. Finally, after about five months of work, Bourke-White was the first to capture the visual intensity of the steel industry. Soon her photographs were appearing in newspapers and magazines across the United States, which led to many other corporate commissions.
Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, saw Bourke-White's photographs of the Otis Steel Company and invited her to meet with him in New York in 1929. He had a plan for a new magazine that would use photography to document all aspects of business and industry on a scale that had never been done in the United States. Because of Bourke-White's experience photographing the industrial world, Luce hired her in 1929 as the first photographer for his new magazine, Fortune. She accepted the job on a half-time basis, because she wanted to continue her lucrative freelance work. In the first issue of Fortune, dated February 1930, Bourke-White had three photo spreads and was the only photographer listed in the table of contents. In effect, this was her magazine and she was the "star photographer." Soon her dramatic photographs became the trademark of Fortune, reflecting the public's admiration for technology and for her as a photographer. Although she did not invent industrial photography, she set the standard for years to come by using dramatic lighting, unusual camera angles, and startling perspectives to show industry as theater.
On her first trip to Europe in June 1930, Bourke-White was assigned to photograph Germany's major industries. However, she proposed extending her trip by traveling to the Soviet Union to photograph its rapid industrialization. The editors at Fortune were skeptical, because the Soviets had never allowed any foreigner to photograph their industry. In typical fashion, Bourke-White was insistent. After many weeks of wrangling and waiting, she finally got her visa in Berlin and set out on the first of several trips to the Soviet Union. Her photographs were so admired that she was made a guest of the government with all expenses paid. She photographed the factories near Moscow and traveled around the country to capture images of a collective farm, the country's largest cement factory, and the construction of the world's largest dam. When she returned to the United States, Bourke-White included these images in her book, Eyes on Russia, published in 1931. The Soviet government invited Bourke-White back in 1931, where she focused her camera more on human subjects. Returning again in 1932, Bourke-White visited rural areas. The photographs from these three trips demonstrate her esteem for the Soviet Union and its people.
BOURKE-WHITE IN THE 1930s
Bourke-White's photographs in Fortune and her book on the Soviet Union made her famous in the United States in the 1930s. The fact that she was a woman contributed to the national interest, because few women had achieved high positions in business, government, or the arts at this time. Her every move became newsworthy, and she was a role model for women across the country. Unfortunately, her fame did not translate into added income. By 1933 the Depression was hurting businesses everywhere. Many companies cut down on advertising, which was a main source of revenue for Bourke-White. In addition, Fortune cut its fee scale. Bourke-White had to find new ways to make money. She developed new skills such as taking aerial photographs.
Fortune's editorial pages changed in response to the Depression. As more readers lost their jobs, their interest in technology declined. Increasingly, the content of Fortune focused on social problems. Bourke-White's camera reflected this shift, laying the groundwork for the next phase of her career. In late 1936, Henry Luce hired her as one of the first four photographers, and the only woman, for his new magazine, Life.
Label text for the exhibition:
Traveling Checklist for the exhibition (June 2003):
(All photographs are gelatin silver prints. Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the Margaret Bourke-White Collection, Syracuse University Library, Department of Special Collections. All images are copyright Estate of Margaret Bourke-White, unless otherwise noted.)