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


The first major exhibition devoted to the critical early years in the life and work of photographer Margaret Bourke-White will premiere this February at The Phillips Collection. Opening on February 15, 2003, Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936, comprising approximately 140 photographs, will be the first exhibition to explore fully her important early images. Many of the photographs in the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue have not been seen by the general public since they were first published in the early to mid-1930s, while others have never been reproduced. 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 for the first issue of Life magazine, the exhibition will explore the formative years in Bourke-White's career when she developed her aesthetic vision and forged new territory into the field of photojournalism.

Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 is organized by The Phillips Collection. The exhibition is supported by the Phillips Contemporaries, a group of young supporters of the museum who sponsor educational programs, art acquisitions, and special exhibitions. After closing at The Phillips Collection on May 11, 2003, the exhibition will travel to venues across the country.

Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 explores Bourke-White's early development and her emergence as one of the 20th century's best-known female photographers. She 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. She romanticized the power of machines through close-ups, dramatic cross-lighting and unusual perspectives, presenting industrial environments as artful compositions. These images revealed her grasp of modern design and aesthetics, and caught the eye of corporate executives and magazine publishers, ultimately landing her the position of Life magazine's first cover photographer.

"The works in this exhibition, many of which haven't been seen by the general public since they were first published in the 1930s, will bring to light the distinctive eye for modern design and composition that Bourke-White brought to the field of photography," explained Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection and organizer of the exhibition. "Bourke-White was herself quintessentially modern. Ambitious, glamorous, brave, and entrepreneurial, she overcame daunting obstacles, both social and technical, to produce her first dramatic images inside the Otis Steel Mill in Cleveland at a time when women simply did not go inside steel mills."

The compositional elements of Bourke-White's early photographs reflect the modernist principles that compelled museum founder Duncan Phillips to explore the possibilities of the medium for himself. Phillips was open to the creative possibilities of the medium and held exhibitions by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He accepted more than 50 photographs as gifts to the museum in the course of his career, among them 19 by Stieglitz, given by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949. Over the years the collection has continued to grow. This exhibition was organized around Bourke-White's Steps, Washington, DC ( 1935), which was purchased for The Phillips Collection in 1996.

"Like Duncan Phillips, who broke the mold in thinking about what a museum might be, Bourke-White was a pioneer," said Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. "She saw the power of pattern and line to transform the simple design and functional structure of factories and warehouses into elegant modernist compositions. This show will be the first to explore fully her photographic exploration into this area of design and composition."


About Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White was born on June 14, 1904 in New York, and was raised in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Her father, Joseph White, was an avid amateur photographer who developed his prints in the family bathtub and hung them around the house. Bourke-White's fascination with the industrial world also dated from her youth and was learned from her father, an inventor and engineer for a printing press manufacturer. Around 1912 he took her inside a foundry and the drama and excitement of this scene stayed in her mind for years.

Bourke-White enrolled at Columbia University in the fall of 1921 and in the spring took a photography class with Clarence H. White, one of the greatest photographers of the period. Through his class, she encountered Arthur Wesley Dow's theories of composition, which focused on modern design and principles of abstraction. During college she discovered that her photography could generate income, and she subsequently built her career not only on her talent as a photographer, but also on her understanding of what her images could do for corporate identity. Bourke-White moved to Cleveland in 1927, at a time when the city was experiencing expansive industrial and economic growth. Other women photographers at the time -- Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange -- had begun their careers as portrait photographers; but Bourke-White recognized early on the power of the industrial photograph, both as an aesthetic medium and as a lucrative source of income.

While many photographers in the 1910s and 1920s, including Paul Strand and Lewis Hine, were drawn to the subject of American industry, Bourke-White alone celebrated the graphic power of its raw machinery over the human element that drove it. Her 1929 photograph Chrysler, Gears emphasizes the immensity of the gear -- the worker, placed barely inside the frame, 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.

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 should be seen as a significant step for Bourke-White in her development as a photojournalist.

Bourke-White returned to the United States with a greater sympathy for the suffering of the American worker. In July 1935 she discussed her desire to develop "a candid camera technique" with Fortune's editor, explaining, "While it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks or a row of dynamos, it is becoming more and more important to reflect the life that goes on behind these photographs." She collaborated with Erskine Caldwell to publish You Have Seen Their Faces, an independent book project that allowed her to explore her growing interest in human subjects with greater freedom then corporate and magazine assignments.

Eager to combine her skills in photography with a growing social conscience, her new partnership with Luce in 1936 provided just the outlet, and Bourke-White became one of four photographers on the staff of Life. The new Life magazine took a human-interest angle, and Bourke-White's first assignment, in October 1936, was to photograph the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in New Deal, Montana. The inaugural issue used her image, New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam, a traditional industrial photograph employing compositional devices that she had learned from Dow and White over a decade earlier, on the cover, and devoted the nine-page lead story, "Franklin Roosevelt's Wild West," to her images of life in the town of New Deal. Released on November 23, 1936, the inaugural issue of Life and its use of Bourke-White's photographs set the tone for the magazine for years to come.


Exhibition Catalogue

Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 is accompanied by a 208-page catalogue published by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. and written by Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection and organizer of the exhibition. In addition, the catalogue will include an illustrated chronology of the artist's life as well as appendices with selected correspondence between the artist and her editors and colleagues at Time Inc., parent company of Fortune and Life magazines, and transcripts of radio interviews.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Phillips Collection in Resource Library Magazine.

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