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Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971).

About the Artist

Margaret Bourke-White is best known for her photojournalism and commercial photography. Her photograph of the George Washington Bridge published in Fortune magazine in 1933, explores the modern concept of the machine-age aesthetic, celebrating the beauty in function.

Margaret Bourke-White studied photography at the Clarence White School while attending Columbia University. She also attended the University of Michigan, Purdue, and Western Reserve University before graduating from Cornell University. It was at Cornell that she began to support herself as a photographer.

After graduating from Cornell University in 1927, Bourke-White moved to Ohio, where she turned her camera to the abstracted, fleeting imagery of mills, smokestacks, trains, and bridges of the Cleveland area. Margaret Bourke-White investigated the interior of the Otis Steel Company, where she climbed on machinery, used flood and flash lighting, and never backed away from the scathing heat or asphyxiating fumes.

Bourke-White preferred larger format cameras and tripods to the popular handheld cameras of the day. These larger cameras, using single sheets of film, produced large, highly detailed negatives that allowed the photographer to print high-quality photographs. Her skillful use of light gave her a broad range of texture and contrast, in both color and black-and-white exposures. Use of a tripod allowed her to deliberately compose each image.

In May 1929, Henry R. Luce, the Time magazine tycoon, hired Bourke-White as associate editor to photograph for Fortune magazine, a publication devoted to business and industry. While on the Fortune staff, Bourke-White executed provocative portfolios of American industry, analyzing the Elgin Watch Factory (Watch Hands, Brown, p. 34) and the Chicago Swift meat-packing plant (Hogs, Brown, p. 36). Bourke-White photographed the Chrysler Building in New York, shooting from 800 feet above ground, in windy, frigid temperatures. She took advice from construction workers, learning how to relax and cautiously proceed. (Rubin, p. 39)

Internationally, Bourke-White photographed major German industries, and was granted one of the few visas to photograph the Russian agrarian and industrial nation in the post-Revolutionary era, even photographing Stalin's mother. She was also present when General Patton liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, and was only a few blocks from Gandhi when he was assassinated. Bourke-White photographed Korea in the early 1950s for Life magazine and documented the gold mining industry in South Africa.

About the Photograph

The George Washington Bridge

In 1927, American industry reached a peak of productivity and profitability. Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean in The Spirit of St. Louis. Drivers crossed America in Henry Ford's Model-T cars. In this very modern year, construction began on the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Connecting northern New Jersey to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, this was one of several bridges built by the Port of New York Authority to ease traffic congestion. Its sleek design and superior scientific engineering made the bridge an icon of New York's modernity. The George Washington Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, a modern engineering success.

Fortune assigned Bourke-White to photograph the bridge for a story on the civil engineering projects of the Port of New York Authority. Bourke-White explained her experience: "The bridge was under construction then and breathtakingly beautiful, with no floor yet built but with the gossamer-like cables gracefully strung from bank to bank. I bad been waiting for just this phase of the construction, and it was my bad luck that it came in midwinter on a zero day ... I spent the morning perched high over the ice-flecked Hudson River on the mighty cables, which, on closer acquaintance, I found to be not gossamer at all but as thick as tree trunks." (Bourke-White, p. 87)

In her 1933 print, Bourke-White uses the long, sweeping lines of the cables to frame both sides of the composition and to highlight the interlacing angles of the structure. The black hue of the bridge contrasts sharply with the light, clear sky. It is a narrow, vertical photograph, 13 3/8" tall and 8 3/4" wide (34 x 22 cm) versus the usual 10 x 8" (25.5 x 20 cm) or 12 x 9" (30.5 x 23 cm). There is no sense of time or place, but modernity is omnipresent. When Bourke-White came to photograph in 1931, the main highway platform was not constructed, forcing her to walk along suspension cables. Bourke-White remarked, "I always loved things that were under construction better than things that were finished." (Rubin, p. 27) She always loved a challenge! She did not choose an aerial view, and opted to focus on the descending cables, giving the viewer a sense of scale. This bridge is vast, functional, and beautiful.

A Closer Look

What types of shapes or angles can you see in this photograph? Find a line that is curving and smooth. Find a line that overlaps another. How can you tell it is overlapping? What is the mood of this piece? Would the mood change if cars and trucks were driving over the bridge? How long do you think it would take to walk across this bridge? How large is this bridge? Can you tell distance from this photograph? How might you be able to? What materials might have been used to construct this bridge? What machines might have been used to construct this bridge? Would this photograph have a different feeling if it showed people or the New York skyline in it?

Resources

Bourke-White, Margaret. Portrait of Myself. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963. Learn how a fashionable, adventurous woman saw herself.

Brown, Theodore. Margaret Bourke-White Photojournalist. New York, NY: Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1972. This book was written to complement a comprehensive exhibition of her work.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. This book describes the artist's life in detail, including many of her photographs.

www.mfa.org/handbook Check out the "Modern World" section of the MFA Collections Guide to get a closer look at Margaret Bourke-White's George Washington Bridge from far away!

www.clevelandart.org Visit the Cleveland Museum of Art's website to view other works by this photographer.

Things to Do

Judith King, Manager of School and Teacher Partnerships

Elementary

Ask your students to look closely at Bourke-White's photo. What does it look like to them? Do they recognize it as a bridge? Does it look real? Why or why not? What do they notice about it (It's big. It's beautiful. It's scary.) How does it make them feel? Why are bridges important? (To connect people and places) Does it remind them of a bridge in their city or town? Have students make a list of bridges in their city or town. Allow each student to select a bridge as his or her own. Ask students to draw their bridge and show us how they feel about the bridge.

Middle School

Ask your students: "How does this photograph make you feel?" How do they think the photographer felt about the George Washington Bridge? Why? What can a photographer do to make us see a real object in a subjective way? Give students a 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm) index card and have them construct a viewfinder by cutting out the center of the card, leaving a 1" border all around. Have students look at The George Washington Bridge through the viewfinder and see how it looks as a vertical or horizontal composition. Now ask your students to sketch this bridge, as they would like to see it. What choices have they made and why?

High School

Ask your students how they think Margaret Bourke-White felt about the George Washington Bridge. What did it mean to her? How did it express the spirit of her era? What evidence do they see in the photograph to support their theories? Ask students to give examples of contemporary photographers who express the spirit of the present. Who are they? What is the spirit? Ask students to photograph something in their city or town that captures the spirit of an era. How does the student feel about this era and subject as shown in his or her photograph?

Alyce Perry, Adult Learning Fellow MFA, Boston
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Title Annotation:Looking and Learning
Author:Perry, Alyce
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1368
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