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

February 14 - May 2, 2004


No one word so readily captures the personality and drive of Margaret Bourke-White than fearless. Fearless in being first to capture an image of pouring molten steel so close-up her face turned sunburn-red while the finish to her camera blistered. Fearless in climbing out on gargoyles perched 61 stories atop the Chrysler Building to photograph the New York skyline and the 180 foot finial crown to what was then the tallest building in the world prior to the completion of the Empire State Building. Fearless in her unrelenting push to be the first foreigner permitted to photograph the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union in 1931. Fearless in capturing the unpredictable turmoil and danger of Mahatma Gandhi and India casting off the yoke of British colonialism. Margaret Bourke-White's photographs for Fortune and Life magazines and her 1931 book Eyes on Russia made her an American celebrity and a role model for women. (left: Margaret Bourke-White, Terminal Tower, Cleveland: View from Grillwork,1928)

Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927 - 1936, on display at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Art February 14 - May 2, is the first exhibition devoted to the critical early years of her career, exploring her emergence as one of the 20th century's best known female photographers. Many of the 160 photographs on display have not been seen by the general public since first being published.

"Some critics feel that Bourke-White wasn't an artist because she never shot anything that wasn't a photo assignment or commission," stated curator Stephen Bennett Phillips. "But these early photographs show her remarkable control of design and composition." (right: Margaret Bourke-White, Chrysler: Gargoyle outside Margaret Bourke-White's Studio, 1930)

Bourke-White's fascination with the industrial world originated with her father, Joseph White, an inventor and engineer for a New Jersey printing press manufacturer. At age eight he took her inside a foundry. The drama of what she saw there stayed in her mind for years. Margaret studied at Columbia University under Clarence White, one of the great photographers of the period, where she encountered Arthur Wesley Dow's theories of composition focused on modern design and principles of abstraction.

Bourke-White began her career in Cleveland in 1927, quickly gaining notice as an architectural photographer in portraying the grand mansions of the industrial magnates living along Euclid Avenue. She recognized early the financial potential of developing the power of the industrial photograph as an aesthetic medium. Cleveland was in its heyday of expansive industrial growth, captured in Bourke-White's photos of the industrial foundries and steel mills of the Cuyahoga River basin and by the city's new symbol of economic prosperity - The Terminal Tower. (left: Margaret Bourke-White, Pan American Airways: Sikorsky S-42, Propellors, n.d.)

Bourke-White romanticized the power of machines through close-ups, dramatic cross lighting and unusual perspectives in presenting industrial environments as artful compositions. Her lush photographs of stacked copper pipes, massive piles of braided aluminum cable, the gleam and symmetry of Sikorsky S-42 airline propellers or a close-up of the steel surfaces in Oliver Chilled Plows: Plow Blades borders on complete abstraction. Within a year, Margaret's work appeared regularly in national magazines, ultimately landing her the position as first photographer for Fortune magazine in 1929, and later, the photographer for the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936.

By 1930 Margaret moved to New York City with a studio in the Chrysler Building and Fortune magazine assignments that took her around the globe. Her work in capturing the explosive growth of Russian industry in on her second trip in 1931 marked a turning point in which human subjects became the emphasis. Bourke-White returned to the United States with a greater sympathy for the suffering of the American worker. Eager to combine her skills in photography with a growing social conscience, Life magazine provided her the outlet she was looking for. Her first assignment, New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam set the tone for the magazine for years to come with her portrayal of life in the town of New Deal and the construction of the dam. (right: Margaret Bourke-White, Campbell Soup: Peeling Onions, 1935)

The exhibition features 160 photographs by Bourke-White as well as archival materials from the first decade of her career. A 208 page catalogue, published by Rizzoli International Publications and written by Stephen Bennett Phillips, Curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is available in the Mint Museums Shops.

The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. and is supported by the Phillips Contemporaries and Trellis Fund. Its North Carolina appearance is made possible by the Goodrich Corporation.

Note: What better to accompany a major study of the early work of Margaret Bourke-White than an historic and aesthetic overview of the history of American photography. Through the Eye of the Camera: 19th and 20th Century Photography from the Royal & SunAlliance Collection on display at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art February 14 through May 2, 2004 will both surprise and please photography buffs in largely achieving an ambitious collection goal. The exhibition is organized by Martha Mayberry, Mint Curator of Prints and Drawings. (See Through the Eye of the Camera: 19th and 20th Century Photography from the Royal & SunAlliance Collection.)

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Mint Museum of Art / Mint Museum of Craft+Design in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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