Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971) was an American photographer and documentary photographer.
She is most famously known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take picture of Soviet Industry, the first female war correspondent (and related, the first female permitted to work in combat zones) and the first female photographer for Henry Luce’s Life magazine, where her photograph graced the first Life cover. She died of Parkinson’s Disease approximately eighteen years after she developed her first symptoms.
Bourke-White was the first female war corresponden and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II. In 1941, she traveled to the Soviet Union just as Germany broke its pact of non-aggression. She was the only foreign photographer in Moscow when German forces invaded. Taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy, she then captured the ensuing firestorms on camera.
As the war progressed, she was attached to the U.S. Army Air Force in North Africa, then to the U.S. Army in Italy and later Germany. She repeatedly came under fire in Italy in areas of fierce fighting.
“The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed, was known to the Life staff as ‘Maggie the Indestructible’.*
*This incident in the Mediterranean refers to the sinking of the England-Africa bound British troopship SS Strathallan which she recorded in an article “Women in Lifeboats”, in Life, February 22, 1943.
In the spring of 1945, she traveled through a collapsing Germany with General George S. Patton. In this period, she arrived at Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp. She is quoted as saying, “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.” After the war, she produced a book entitled Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, a project that helped her come to grips with the brutality she had witnessed during and after the war. Interesting is also that after her visit to Buchenwald, she and Lee Miller, another famous female model/photographer, went on to Kahla to discover the “REIMAHG”. (Photos made at the factory on May 1st, 1945)
“To many who got in the way of a Bourke-White photograph — and that included not just bureaucrats and functionaries but professional colleagues like assistants, reporters, and other photographers — she was regarded as imperious, calculating, and insensitive.”
She had a knack for being at the right place at the right time: She interviewed and photographed Mohandas K. Gandhi just a few hours before his assassination. Eisenstaedt, her friend and colleague, said one of her strengths was that there was no assignment and no picture that was unimportant to her. She also started the first photo lab at Life.