Photosensitive

By anyone's measure, Margaret Bourke-White was extraordinary, both as a photographer and as a person, although the two wrapped inextricably around each other like a DNA double helix. As a staff photographer -- a photojournalist, really -- for Life magazine (her image of Montana's Fort Peck Dam graced the publication's November 23, 1936, inaugural issue), Bourke-White went everywhere, documented everything. Sharecroppers in the Deep South in 1936. Louisville flood victims standing in a bread line in 1937. A Nazi rally in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The German bombing of Moscow in 1941. Allied troops liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. Gandhi at his spinning wheel in India in 1946. Apartheid in South Africa in 1950. The Korean War in 1952. All of them remarkable images depicting the bare-wires soul of the human condition; many of them laced with a penetrating social commentary.

Beginning December 19 more than 50 examples of Bourke-White's work will be on display at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre's Museum in Delray Beach. They include her earliest pictures from the late Twenties, when she pioneered the field of architectural and industrial photography; some of her best-known Life pieces (Gandhi, the Louisville bread line); and several previously unpublished shots, notably an aerial photo of a DC-4 soaring high above Manhattan. All have been drawn from Life's vast repository of Bourke-White's work.

"They're powerful images to look at," notes Jennie Hirschfeld, manager of the New York City-based Life Gallery of Photography. "She got to the heart of whatever it was that she was photographing. A lot of why she was able to take the kinds of pictures that she did -- and how she was able to negotiate being in these situations that were difficult for anybody, particularly a woman -- had to do with her personality. She was determined to get the pictures, and she did."

To photograph the construction of Manhattan's Chrysler Building in 1929, for example, Bourke-White perched precariously outside on scaffolding -- 800 feet above the street. And to document the North African campaign during World War II, she flew with the 97th Bomb Group as part of a raid near Tunis. Although she contracted Parkinson's disease in the mid-Fifties, she continued to photograph, remaining a Life staffer through 1969. She died two years later.

A prolific writer as well as a photographer -- eleven books in all -- Bourke-White wrote of her experience at Buchenwald: "I come away from what I have been photographing sick at heart, with the faces of people in pain etched as sharply in my mind as on my negatives. But I go back because I feel it is my place to make such pictures."

-- Michael Yockel

 
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