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

(above: graphic courtesy Oklahoma City Museum of Art )

April 14 - June 12, 2005


Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 is being exhibited at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art from April 14 through June 12, 2005. Organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., this exhibition explores Bourke-White's early development and her emergence as one of the 20th century's best-known photographers. This first major exhibition devoted to the critical early years of Bourke-White's career is comprised of approximately 140 photographs. Many of the photographs 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 of Life magazine's first issue, the exhibition will explore the formative years in Bourke-White's career when she developed her aesthetic vision and forged new territory in the field of photojournalism.

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. "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," explained Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at The Phillips Collection and organizer of the exhibition. Bourke-White 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.


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.


Related Events

The Art of Photojournalism - Behind the Scenes of The Oklahoman's Photography Department
The Oklahoman's chief photographer Bill Waugh and his team of photojournalists will present a behind-the-scenes talk and visual presentation of their award winning photos on Tuesday, April 26 in the Noble Theater. The exhibition will be open from 5:00-6:30 p.m., the talk begins at 7:00 p.m .in the Noble Theater.
Margaret Bourke-White: Her Life and Time
On Wednesday, May 4, at 6:30 p.m. in the Noble Theater, Curator Stephen Bennett Phillips will discuss the early critical years of Margaret Bourke-White's career, leading to her photographs for the cover and lead story of Life magazine's first issue.
Cost is regular Museum admission. (405) 236-3100, ext. 213


About Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White was born on June 14, 1904, in New York and was raised in Bound Brook, New Jersey. 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, and by 1928, her 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 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.

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 capture the country's rapid industrialization. The Soviet images differ from her other work with 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.

Eager to combine her skills in photography with a growing social conscience, Bourke-White's partnership with Luce provided just the outlet, and she became one of four photographers on the staff of Life in 1936. 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 magazine's tone for years to come.


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