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Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 - August 27, 1971) was an American photographer and photojournalist.
Bourke-White was born in the Bronx, New York, to Joseph White (who came from an Orthodox Jewish family) and Minnie Bourke, the daughter of an Irish ship's carpenter and an English cook; she was a Protestant. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey (in a neighborhood now part of Middlesex), but graduated from Plainfield High School. Her father was a naturalist, engineer and inventor, her mother, Minnie Bourke, a "resourceful homemaker." She learned from her father perfection; from her mother, the unabashed desire for self-improvement."
In 1922, she began studying herpetology at Columbia University, where she developed an interest in photography after studying under Clarence White (no relation). In 1925, she married Everett Chapman, but the couple divorced a year later. After switching colleges several times (University of Michigan, where she became a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority; Purdue University in Indiana, and Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio), Bourke-White enrolled at Cornell University, lived in Risley Hall, and graduated in 1927. A year later, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she became an industrial photographer at the Otis Steel Company.
In 1929, she accepted a job as associate editor of Fortune magazine. In 1930, she became the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union. She was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine.
Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life's first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such an iconic image that it was featured as the 1930s representative to the United States Postal Service's Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps. "Although Bourke-White titled the photo, 'New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam,' it is actually a photo of the spillway located three miles east of the dam," according to a United States Army Corps of Engineers Web page.
During the mid-1930s, Bourke-White, like Dorothea Lange, photographed drought victims of the Dust Bowl. Bourke-White and novelist Erskine Caldwell were married from 1939 to 1942, and together they collaborated on You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a book about conditions in the South during the Great Depression upon arrival to America.
During the 1950s, Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She had just turned 50 when she had to slow her career to fight off the disease, initially with physical therapy, then with brain surgery in 1959 and 1961.
She wrote her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, which was published in 1963 and became a best seller, but she grew increasingly infirm and increasingly became more isolated in her home in Darien, Connecticut. Her living room there "was wallpapered in one huge, floor-to-ceiling, perfectly-stitched-together black-and-white photograph of an evergreen forest that she had shot in Czechoslovakia in 1938." A pension plan set up in the 1950s "though generous for that time" no longer covered her health-care costs. She also suffered financially from her personal generosity and "less-than-responsible attendant care."
She died in Connecticut, aged 67.
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