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Artist Spotlight: Margaret Bourke-White

Piston Rods, ca. 1927, by Margaret Bourke-White

Since Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic images will be featured in both of the Gibbes’ upcoming exhibitions—Breaking Down Barriers: 300 Years of Women in Art and Camera Works: Masters in Photography—we thought her groundbreaking career worthy of the spotlight!

Margaret Bourke-White studied photography at Columbia University under renowned photographer Clarence H. White. She opened her own studio in Cleveland in the 1920s and found early artistic success creating images in factories and other industrial environments. She was conscious of modernist compositional techniques, and had a unique ability to find beauty in the raw materials associated with machinery—as is exemplified in her 1927 image, Piston Rods. However, from the outset of her career, Bourke-White was interested in using photography to examine social issues and she quickly broke into the male-dominated field of photojournalism.

She was a woman of many firsts. In 1929, Bourke-White was hired as the first staff photographer for Fortune magazine. She was also one of the first of four photojournalist hired by Life magazine and one of her photographs appeared on the magazine’s first cover in 1936. Bourke-White traveled throughout the world and was the first-ever Western photographer allowed in the Soviet Union. She photographed some of the twentieth century’s most notable moments, including the liberation of German concentration camps in 1945, and the release of Mahatma Gandhi from prison in 1946.

Two Old Women, 1937, By Margaret Bourke-White

Bourke-White traveled through the American south in the 1930s. Like many of the famed photographers of the era—such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Peter Sekaer—she worked to capture the devastating effects of the Great Depression. Many of her images from this experience were included in the publication, You Have Seen Their Faces, a collaborative project with her future husband, author Erskine Caldwell.

Sara Arnold, curator of collections, Gibbes Museum of Art

Breaking Down Barrier: 300 Years of Women in Art and Camera Works: Masters in Photography both open on October 28, 2011

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