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Sag Harbor Picture Gallery

Margaret Bourke-White
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Excerpt from Sag Harbor Picture Gallery:

Exhibition: Margaret Bourke-White: The Early Years
Sag Harbor Picture Gallery
October 28, 2000 - Monday, January 01, 2001


The Sag Harbor Picture Gallery is pleased to present the works of one of the great figures of 20th century photography, Margaret Bourke-White.  Showcasing some of this illustrious photographer’s most formidable work, Margaret Bourke-White:  The Early Years reveals the immense range and wide vision of Bourke-White’s pre-WWII work, from her famous grandiose views of the Chrysler Building to the sensitive, emotionally wrought images of southern American sharecroppers.  Among the first superstars of photography, Margaret Bourke-White’s career spanned the golden age of photojournalism.  Known for getting the picture and being in the right place at the right time, this hugely ambitious ’First Lady’ of photography was also immensely talented - her eye for drama and surprising compositional sense, combined with her courage to both physically and emotionally close the distance between camera and subject, produced some of the 20th century’s most spectacular images.

Among the many highlights in the show is Taxi Dancers, Fort Peck, Montana, a group portrait of construction workers and taxi dancers caught at play in a dancehall at the construction site of the Peck dam in Montana. The workers and dancers are in a relaxed mode, confidently regarding the camera and the photographer behind it.  The composition is stunning, a graceful, sweeping panorama portraying the happy workers with dignity and poise equal to those fashionable Parisians painted by Impressionist painters in belle époque ballrooms.

Also included are Bourke-Whites Chrysler Building, Diversion Tunnels, Fort Peck, Montana and Fort Peck Dam, Montana (which graced the very first cover of LIFE magazine), all illustrating Bourke-White’s ability to convey the sense of majesty and splendor prevalent in the early years of large-scale architecture. The gorgeous Tower Terminal, Cleveland dramatically captures the character of the town in the midst of its boom years.  Her eye for the abstract is evident in such industrial shots as Industrial Rayon Corporation, Painsville, Ohio, 1939 Aluminum and Oxford Paper Co., Rumford, Maine, 1932, which, despite the prosaic titles, are lovely examples of Bourke-White’s power of composition and depth of vision.  Known for her love of unusual perspective, Bourke-White was said to finagle an airplane ride out of nearly assignment.  Indeed, many of her best-known pictures were taken from the air.

Of this genre and included in the show are the magnificent DC-4 Flying over Manhattan, which captures the irrepressible optimism and romantic spirit of the early days of commercial aviation, and an aerial view of the Statue of Liberty, presenting the familiar figure from a breathtakingly fresh point of view.

Margaret Bourke-White was born in the Bronx and grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  She began her studies with an interest in herpetology but soon switched to photography.  Working first in Cleveland, Ohio and then for the newly founded Fortune magazine, Bourke-White attacked her carer with great confidence and enthusiasm, surpassing male colleagues’ courage and ability to reach potentially dangerous places in order to properly photograph a story. In the early 1930s she became the first western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union on assignment, and her first book, Eyes on Russia, was published in 1931.  Later in the 1930s she photographed victims of the Dust bowl and with her soon-to-be husband, the writer Erskine Caldwell, published the book You Have Seen Their Faces, documenting poor tenant farmers in the southern United States.

Prior to World War II Bourke-White published two more books, North of the Danube and Say, Is This the United States? dealing with daily life in pre-war Czechoslovakia and the United States, respectively, and when Germany first bombed Moscow she was the only foreign photographer in the city at the time, presenting Life magazine with exclusive coverage of the event.  Ever the adventurer, she went on to cover WWII events in North Africa and Italy, and crossed the German border alongside Patton’s troops.  She was among the first photographers to enter and document the horrors discovered in the Nazi concentration camps.

After the war, Bourke-White divided her time primarily between South Africa, Korea and India, the latter of which resulted in some of her most famous photographs, those of Mohandas Gandhi.  She gradually withdrew from the world of photography in the 1950s due to difficulties with Parkinson’s disease.  In 1963, she published an autobiography, Portrait of Myself.

This show is presented in association with the Life Gallery photography.


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Margaret Bourke-White, American (1904-1971)
b. June 14, 1904, The Bronx, NY
d. 1971


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