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Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936

June 25 - September 4, 2005

 

The early work of one of America's best known photographers is profiled in an exhibition that opens at the Frick Art & Historical Center on June 25, 2005. Organized by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and featuring over 150 photographs, Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 is the first exhibition exclusively devoted to the artist's formative years.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was one of the great chroniclers of the Machine Age of the late 1920s and early 30s. She captured beauty in the world of industry that was not usually perceived as beautiful, nor easily accessible to a woman. While many male photographers of the period, including Paul Strand and Lewis Hine, were drawn to the subject of American industry, Bourke-White alone celebrated the graphic power of raw machinery rather than the human element that drove it. Using close-ups, dramatic lighting and unusual perspectives, Bourke-White presented raw industrial environments as artful compositions. Her images caught the attention of corporate executives and magazine publishers, among them Henry Luce, and propelled her to the forefront of photography and photojournalism in the twentieth century.

Many of the photographs included in Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design and the accompanying catalogue have not been seen by the general public since they were first published in the early-to-mid-1930s. Others have never been reproduced. Beginning with Bourke-White's 1927 pictorialist views of Cleveland's Terminal Tower and culminating with her photographs that appeared in the inaugural issue of Life magazine, the exhibition explores the years during which the artist developed her unique aesthetic vision. Ambitious, glamorous, brave, and entrepreneurial, Bourke-White overcame daunting obstacles in her pursuit of some of the most important industrial photographs of the age.

Bill Bodine, Director of the Frick Art & Historical Center comments that, "The Frick is pleased to present these works by an artist who broke new ground in the arts of photography and photojournalism." He notes that the exhibition reflects a move by the Frick to present American art in The Frick Art Museum. "The positive attributes that we ascribe to Americans -- directness, a sense of exploration, a yearning for new frontiers and progress -- are front and center in this wonderful exhibition."

Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 is curated by Stephen Bennett Phillips, of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. It remains on view at The Frick Art Museum through September 4, 2005.

 

MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE: CHRONICLER OF THE MACHINE AGE

Margaret Bourke-White grew up surrounded by photographs, machines and technology. Her father, Joseph White, was an avid amateur photographer, as well as an engineer and prolific inventor. Bourke-White's formative years coincided with a period of economic expansion in America. Industrial production doubled between 1919 and 1929 as the nation became the most technologically advanced in the world. The thriving economy supported the construction of countless factories, skyscrapers, bridges, dams and tunnels.

While a freshman at Columbia University, Bourke-White was influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow, an influential printmaker, designer and photographer who emphasized two-dimensional rhythm and harmony achieved through line, color, light, and dark. Dow's principles of good composition can be seen in the abstract style that characterizes Bourke-White's early work.

After moving to Cleveland in 1927, Bourke-White began photographing the city's architecture. An unusual subject for photographers at that time, the forms, geometric shapes and cold steel of industrial plants lent themselves perfectly to the abstract style that she had already developed in her work. One of her recurrent subjects was the Terminal Tower, a skyscraper then under construction. In Terminal Tower, Cleveland: View from the Street (1928), the sunlit tower is bracketed by the edges of darkly shadowed buildings, an artful device that shows her ability to imbue an image with dramatic power.

The steel mills were another of her favorite subjects. Photographing their exteriors, Bourke-White also persuaded the president of Otis Steel to grant her unrestricted access to the plant for several months. Once inside the dark mill, she discovered that it was difficult to photograph her subject using conventional methods and materials. It took five months of experimentation and effort using magnesium flares for light and a new photographic paper before she finally achieved satisfactorily lit prints. Photographs in the exhibition from this period include Otis Steel: Dumping Slag from Ladle (1928), in which the magnesium flares create pools of light around the huge black forms of the industrial ladles.

Such images gained Bourke-White respect in the field of industrial photography and led to numerous corporate commissions. In these images, Bourke-White singled out individual objects, machine parts, architectural images or people. In Ford Motor: Open Hearth Mill (1929), a silhouetted worker appears as an insignificant element dwarfed by the machinery's massiveness. Her Republic Steel: Pouring Steel (1929) conveys the intense heat of molten steel. In 1929 Chrysler Motor Company hired her to photograph its new skyscraper under construction in New York, which led her to rent a studio on the sixty-first floor of the completed building, where she shot her famous Chrysler Building: Gargoyle outside Margaret Bourke-White's Studio (1930). Also featured in the exhibition are several photographs of scenes inside the mills of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).

Making a name for herself with these corporate commissions, Bourke-White came to the attention of publishing magnate Henry Luce, who invited her to join the staff of his new magazine, Fortune . From the time of the magazine's launch in 1930, she traveled widely across the United States and also to Europe and the Soviet Union to document the industrial transformation of these societies. As the first foreign journalist permitted to document industrial progress inside the USSR, Bourke-White photographed many different views of work and life, from construction to ballet. USSR: Moscow, Ballet School, Dancers (1931) -- which shows students practicing a "machine dance" -- illustrates how industrialization was incorporated into all aspects of Soviet life. She was also granted the rare privilege of photographing Josef Stalin.

In 1936, Luce hired Bourke-White to take photographs for his new Life magazine. She was eager to combine her skills in photography with a growing social conscience and a newfound interest in how people lived their lives. For her first assignment, Luce sent her to photograph the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in New Deal, Montana. The resulting iconic images appeared on the cover and in the lead story of the inaugural issue of Life. Released on November 23, 1936, this issue and its use of Bourke-White's photographs set the tone of the magazine for years to come as an outstanding interpreter of the people, places and society comprising the United States.

Over the next several decades, Bourke-White's assignments for Life increasingly focused on people rather than industry. Her focus shifted from photographing industry and design, to the faces and lives of the twentieth century.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 208-page catalogue featuring an essay by Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection and organizer of the exhibition. The catalogue will be available at the Museum Shop.


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