Margaret Bourke-White exhibition - hosted inside Palazzo Vecchio Sala d'Arme, in Florence - was opened on December 6 2001. Contrasto, Life Gallery and Florence council department for the Arts, in association with Regione Toscana and Credito Artigiano, are presenting this retrospective exhibition of photographs by the famous American photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
Margaret Bourke-White's successful career begins in the America of the '20s. Keen on her job, she is obsessed with perfectionism and likes to measure herself not only with the art of photography but also with subjects - such as the world of industry, the great events of those times, photo reportages on America and moving times - which were quite unusual for a woman to approach.
Since 1925, when she took the first snapshots, she has always been travelling around the United States for five different decades, picturing social alienation and troubles in her own country but also the boom of big industries and navy yards, Europe of the post-war period when the concentration camps were opened at last, Russia, Mexico of the '50s, India of Gandhi and Pandit Nerhu, the mines in South Africa.
An energetic photographer with a strong personality, she is the author of the first historic cover for the magazine Life, as well as of some of the most meaningful images of our time, e.g. the picture of Gandhi sitting near the wool-winder in his bedroom, aerial views of America, the Buchenwald deportees and the miners in South Africa.
Margaret always attached great importance to her professional independence. She wanted to be a freelance writer and photographer: she was endowed with a pioneering spirit to look at her life and profession.
Bourke-White's vigorous photography, in which nothing was ever disregarded, aimed at establishing a very peculiar relationship between industrial photography and war photography, in particular for a woman. Images of Buchenwald are a very special document and so are her aerial views, even if from a different point of view.
Both the exhibition Margaret Bourke-White photographer and the catalogue of the exhibition, published by Contrasto, are about the very special life of this woman. The project has been realised in association with A+G Achilli Ghizzardi Associati and with Il Diario.
The exhibition is part of a wider programme entitled Sotto lo stesso cielo (Under the same sky), which is promoted by Florence Council departments for the Arts, Social Security and Education, Regione Toscana and the Local Council for immigration. The programme includes a series of initiatives on the terribly up-to-date subject "co-existence of different cultures" and a series of meetings with exponents of politics, of culture and of the Arts.
Viaggio negli Islam - a big photo reportage by great Iranian photographer Abbas - a member of Magnum Photo Agency who has been travelling around Islamic countries for 7 years - will follow the exhibition Margaret Bourke-White in 2002.
Margaret Bourke-White was born on June 14 1904. Her father was an engineer who designed typographical machinery. As she was only 8 years old, her father took Margaret to visit the steel plants where his projects were realised. "To me, the foundry represented the origin and the end of beauty - wrote Margaret in her autobiography Portrait of Myself (1963). Everything was so intense and so lively that all of my career was to be profoundly influenced by what I saw in that place".
In 1921, shortly after Margaret had entered Columbia University, her father had a heart attack and died living the family so poor that some friends had to pay for Margaret's education. However, she was already enough qualified to earn her living by selling photographs to keep as souvenirs, which she took in colleges and during summer classes. She also attended a course at Clarence H. White School of Photography, at that time a department of the Columbia University. She got to Cleveland in 1927 and definitively consecrated her life to photography.
Six month later, she settled in a studio located inside the Terminal Tower, the most modern and prestigious building of Cleveland. "At that time the Bourke-White studio was nothing but a name printed on the writing paper. I developed the photographs in the kitchenette and washed them in the bathroom. I received guests in the living room after hiding my fold-away bed."
She soon achieved success thanks to a strong determination and a desire to explore new fields and to experiment new techniques. She took quite unusual, dramatic and very poetic photographs from the shaky scaffoldings, which were so close to the big casts that she even run the risk of burning her camera.
1929 marked a turning point in Margaret's career. She met Time's editor-in-chief Henry Luce, who asked her to settle in New York, where she would co-operate in the foundation of the new magazine Fortune. "That was just the role that I believed photography had to play, even more than I could imagine." In a few weeks, Margaret signed a contract for $ 1,000 a month and started working at the images that would appear in the first issue in January 1930.
Meanwhile, she was looking around and began to think about leaving her country. Always in 1930, she left for Germany to picture the German industries after World War I. That was also an opportunity for Margaret to get to Russia: "I believed that the story of a country that had started the difficult process of industrialization practically from one day to another was exactly what I wanted to picture. Farmers were forced to abandon their scythe to join the assembly lines. How could they bear such a quick change? Although I didn't look at them with a technical eye, I spent enough time at the factories to realize that industrialization makes history. Machines develop and men grow with them. It was a unique opportunity to look at a country switching from a medieval past to an industrial future".
Although she was often travelling for Fortune, she maintained her own studio until 1936. There she realized her industrial and corporate works without disregarding more job opportunities (e.g. books, exhibitions and freelance works).
In the middle of the '30s, it became impossible for Margaret to ignore the effects of the big slump. "Drought made me realize that, even in my own country, there were realities I know nothing about" She looked for a more involving project to realize in association with an experienced journalist. Her co-operation with writer Erskine Caldwell led to the big photo reportage on the American working classes. Their book entitled You have seen their faces is a milestone in the photographic book trade.
Again, in 1936, Henry Luce wanted her to realize the cover images as well as the most important reportage for the first issue of LIFE. She realized the first photo essay that was even published in an American magazine. She would work for LIFE for the rest of her career. "When I woke up in the morning I was ready to any surprise that day would give to me. I liked the rapid succession of LIFE's assignments. I was happy to be always in a different place. Everything could be obtained. Nothing was too difficult. And if time was lacking, so much the better: I took up the challenge and built a story, feeling happy and fulfilled".
In 1941, as the non-aggression pact between USSR and Germany was cancelled, Bourke-White was on the spot for LIFE. "Shortly after the beginning of hostilities, the military authorities enacted an ukase that prohibited photography: anyone who was caught with a camera could be arrested. I was there, in front of the biggest scoop of all my life: the biggest country in the world was going at war and I was the only photographer on the spot".
In a few weeks she became so experienced in realizing when the raids were approaching that she took shelter only after arranging the camera. "Such a sight affects you strangely. It all seems so far away that you are not aware of danger. But this sensation of immunity soon vanishes as you see so many people dying!"
In that period, Margaret also managed to take some exceptional pictures of Stalin, which a diplomatic messenger delivered to LIFE editorial office. So, at the height of the war, the American magazine had the opportunity to realize exclusive reportages with images of Russia and of the Asian front.
As the United States went at war in 1942, Burke-White came back to the front: "Late in spring, I was sent there as war correspondent. I was given the first uniform designed for a woman". During the Italian Campaign, both soldiers and generals are quite astonished at her being ready to sleep inside a trench, to patrol the skies on small aircrafts and to work in the field hospitals with gunners firing at them.
In the spring of 1945, she joined General Patton marching on Germany. I got to Buchenwald, near Weimar - wrote Margaret - with General Patton's third army. Patton was so upset by such a terrible sight that he told the police under him to look for a thousand German citizens and to show them what their leaders had done. The military police took two thousand people. That was the first time I heard those words that I would hear again and again: "But they knew, really…" I felt almost relieved I could use my camera, because it placed a sort of tiny barrier between myself and the unspeakable horror that was under my eyes".
At the end of the war, Margaret was ready to take up one more professional challenge. She would picture the birth of the new India. "I got there in 1946. India had just become an independent country. I witnessed an exceptional event in the history of nations such as the birth of two twin countries. I had to picture an historical play with a great cast including big characters and one of the godliest men who was ever in this world. I witnessed his martyrdom". From 1946 onwards, she spent two years working over Indian independence and the split of the country until her book Halfway to Freedom was published in 1948.
Two years later, Margaret was ready again for a new experience. In 1950, she went to South Africa where the Conservative Government in power and the policy of apartheid drew her attention. Going down 2 miles in a gold mine to take a photograph of two miners shattered with terrible heat: a great picture, an icon of injustice, which became her favourite image. "As we came to the small leaning cavity, I hardly recognized the two men I had photographed the day before while they were engaged in tribal dancing. Bathed in sweat and exhausted, their eyes were so sad, they were transfigured".
In that period, Margaret was always trying to persuade the pilots to let her go with them, so that she could take aerial views. She had been keen on flying for a long time; but then photo reportages were specially designed for her, such as the one on the United States pictured from an helicopter.
As the war broke out in Korea, Margaret left again to make photo reportages for the magazine LIFE. As she got there, the armistice having already been signed, she managed nevertheless to take some photographs picturing the conflict between South Korea and the supporters of Communism, who had been left under the demilitarised zone. "I realized there were a considerable part of the events that nobody had told yet: those about the Korean people. With a war devastating the whole country, they must certainly be exhausted. What should they do, say, or think?"
In 1957, Margaret caught the Parkinson disease, which led to the complete paralysis of her arms, preventing her from working again as a photographer.
She had to accept she was a terminally ill patient. She spent the last years of her life undergoing continuous body treatment to check the progress of paralysis. She was an optimist who never lost enthusiasm and confidence in the future: "If only I could hold out and keep in good form, I am sure that - sooner or later - a door will open". She died on August 27 1971. She was 67.
All of her life, Margaret always attached great importance to her professional freedom. She decided herself which reportages to make. Endowed with a pioneering spirit to look at her life and profession, she supported important social campaigns, was engaged in corporate works and was the author of books and photo exhibitions.
© Margaret Bourke-White/Timepix