Margaret Bourke- White never thought she would be a famous photographer. In 1921, when Margaret was 17, she went to college to study herpetology, or the study of snakes and reptiles. That same year her father died leaving her family with little money. To stay in college Margaret got a job taking and selling pictures of the college campus using her father’s broken camera. That summer she got a job as the photographer and counselor at a summer camp. Even though she liked taking pictures, for Margaret, photography was still a hobby. But architects and other photographers were impressed with her photographs and encouraged her to use her talent. When she graduated in 1927, Margaret turned down a position at the Museum of Natural History and went to Cleveland to open her own photography studio.
Margaret had courage and talent from the beginning. At first she did advertising work for schools and other businesses but never stopped working on her artistic skills. For example, as she was walking by she noticed a preacher speaking in a square with only a group of pigeons to hear. Margaret wanted to take his picture but she didn’t have her camera with her. She ran into a camera store and asked to rent or borrow a camera. The picture became one of her first works of art and the owner of the store became one of her best friends.
One of Margaret’s early dreams was to photograph the inside of a steel mill but women weren’t allowed inside. Being a woman didn’t stop her and the pictures were a success. Her shots were published in magazines all over the country and got Margaret her first big job, at Fortune magazine in New York. With Margaret’s photos Fortune became one of the leading photography magazines. The magazine had also made her a star but Margaret still kept her studio, which had grown to a staff of eight and moved to the Chrysler building.
In 1930 Fortune sent Margaret on one of her biggest assignments, to Germany to capture foreign industry. Curious about the Soviet Union she wanted to extend her trip but very few foreigners were allowed into the country. As she once said, “nothing attracts me like a closed door.” Margaret never gave up and, after impressing Russian officials with her portfolio, was admitted into the country. She made a total of three trips and gained a reputation for being and expert on Russian industry. In 1931 she wrote her first book, Eyes on Russia.
During World War II Margaret was sent Europe to cover the war. She got pictures of her own ship being torpedoed and became the first woman in a bomber. She also went with General Patton’s troops to be one of the firsts to photograph a concentration camp. When she returned to the U.S. she wrote another book about the war, Purple Heart Valley.
In 1950 Margaret was awarded an American Women of Achievement award but only seven years later she would no longer be able to hold a camera. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but at first refused to believe the diagnosis. Margaret Bourke- White died in 1971, at 67 years old.
Margaret was one of the greatest photographers but also one of the greatest women. She paved the way for many women in all professions, not just photographers, with her courage and determination.