WASHINGTON, D.C. — Famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s favorite style in the Thirties and Forties was utilitarian trousers at a time when few women wore them. And she had a steel mill to thank for it.
Starting out as a photographer of gardens and elegant estates in Cleveland, Bourke-White got her big break when she convinced the owner of Otis Steel to drop the ban on women in the steel plant, allowing her five months of access to photograph everywhere inside.
“At first, she wore skirts until the foremen raised hell,” says Stephen Bennett Phillips, the curator of the current exhibition at the Phillips Collection’s new show here, “Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design 1927-1936,” on display through May 11.
“The men were working with all this molten steel and looking up her skirt. So she started wearing trousers, which became her trademark,” says Phillips, who concedes, “She knew how to flirt. She loved married men because they were unattainable. In a period where a lot of women were used by men, she was the one doing the using.”
The exhibition of 140 photographs showcases Bourke-White’s star-struck reverence for America’s pre-superpower industrial might. Focusing on machines, hard-bodied blue collar workers, brash skyscrapers and rugged machinery, the show depicts a photographer who is unabashedly smitten by her country’s industrial muscle and manufacturing might. It was a love affair that started when Bourke-White was eight and her father took her to a foundry to watch the production of printing presses.
“I take you up to the moment when Bourke-White becomes really famous as Life Magazine’s leading people photographer,” says Phillips, explaining his decision to focus on the early Bourke-White images, leaving out her better-known work on the Louisville Floods, the Muncie Indians and the post-World War II first look into the German concentration camps.
Bourke-White’s father Joseph was an amateur photographer and she in turn became fascinated with the subject as a young girl growing up in rural New Jersey. Transferring to the University of Michigan from Rutgers in 1921, she began shooting photos for Michigan’s yearbook and became its photo editor in 1922. She eventually graduated from Cornell University in 1927 and married an engineering student, Everett Chapman. But the marriage ended in divorce two years later and she returned to photography, moving to Cleveland in 1927 with a portfolio of architectural photos she’d taken as a student at Cornell. The photos she took of the city’s industrial sites captured the attention of Cleveland’s tycoons, who increasingly hired her to photograph their plants.
In time, Bourke-White’s brash talent caught the eye of Henry Luce, who hired her as Fortune Magazine’s first photographer, sending her on assignment in 1934 to document the Midwest Dust Bowl disaster with writer James Agee. She went on to become one of Life magazine’s four original photographers, shooting everything from Nazi Germany to the newly independent Pakistan and India to the Korean War. In 1956, she found she had Parkinson’s disease, which curtailed her photography. So she linked up with photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt at Life and became a writer, which she continued to do until she died in 1971 from complications of the disease.
“I admire her drive,” says Phillips, who pored through 7,000 photographs at Syracuse University, where Bourke-White donated her papers, to come up with 200 photographs featured in the show’s catalog, published by Rizzoli. “She would not take no for an answer.”
Referring to the photographs of the construction of the Chrysler Building, Phillips says: “Here is this woman hanging out on the top of the Chrysler Building in the winter of 1929-1930. She was up on the scaffolding in the cold, 10,000 feet above the pavement as the building was swaying in the wind.”
Later, when Bourke-White tried to get an apartment in the building, she was told only the janitor could live there. “So she applied for the job of janitor,” says Phillips, noting that after being turned down, she finally located her studio there.
Bourke-White’s penchant for using powerful men came to the forefront in 1936 in the middle of the Depression. Short of funds when her advertising work dried up, she lost the lease on her Chrysler Building studio. Fortune Magazine was hinting they wanted more animation in her people shots. Bourke-White responded by taking up with author Erskine Caldwell to provide photographs for his nonfiction account of the squalid conditions of the rural South, “You Have Seen Their Faces.” Under the tutelage of the “Tobacco Road” author, she strengthened her reputation as a photographer of the underprivileged. Her celebrity status got a boost when the two began living together.
“She only married him because he begged her to,” says Phillips. “She really was not interested in settling down. Three years later, in 1942, she filed for divorce.”
Still, book editor Johanna Halford-MacLeod, who helped work on the catalog, confides even Bourke-White could push things too far.
“She went to the movies a lot, and she tried to imitate what she saw,” says Halford-MacLeod, director of publications at the Phillips Collection. “One day, her colleague and mentor Ralph Steiner advised her she had gone too far. She had to stop having camera cloths made to match the color of her dresses.”