Biography of Margaret Bourke-White

Photographer, Photojournalist

M Bourke-White
McKeown / Getty Images

Margaret Bourke-White was a war correspondent and career photographer whose images represent major events in the 20th century. She was the first woman war photographer and the first woman photographer allowed to accompany a combat mission. Her iconic photographs include images of the Great Depression, World War II, Buchenwald concentration camp survivors, and Gandhi at his spinning wheel.

  • Dates: June 14, 1904 - August 27, 1971
  • Occupation: photographer, photojournalist
  • Also known as: Margaret Bourke White, Margaret White

Early Life

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York as Margaret White. She was raised in New Jersey. Her parents were members of the Ethical Culture Society in New York and had been married by its founding leader, Felix Adler. This religious affiliation suited the couple, with their mixed religious background and somewhat unconventional ideas, including full support for the education of women.

College and First Marriage

Margaret Bourke-White began her university education at Columbia University in 1921, as a biology major, but became fascinated with photography while taking a course at Columbia from Clarence H. White. She transferred to the University of Michigan, still studying biology, after her father died, using her photography to support her education. There she met an electrical engineering student, Everett Chapman, and they were married. The next year she accompanied him to Purdue University, where she studied biology and technology.

The marriage broke up after two years, and Margaret Bourke-White moved to Cleveland where her mother was living and attended Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1925. The following year, she went to Cornell, where she graduated in 1927 with an A.B. in biology.

Early Career

Though majoring in biology, Margaret Bourke-White continued to pursue photography through her college years. Photographs helped to pay for her college costs and, at Cornell, a series of her photographs of the campus was published in the alumni newspaper.

After college, Margaret Bourke-White moved back to Cleveland to live with her mother, and, while working at the Museum of Natural History, pursued a freelance and commercial photography career. She finalized her divorce and changed her name. She added her mother's maiden name, Bourke, and a hyphen to her birth name, Margaret White, adopting Margaret Bourke-White as her professional name.

Her photographs of mostly industrial and architectural subjects, including a series of photographs of Ohio's steel mills at night, drew attention to Margaret Bourke-White's work. In 1929, Margaret Bourke-White was hired by Henry Luce as the first photographer for his new magazine, Fortune.

Margaret Bourke-White traveled to Germany in 1930 and photographed the Krupp Iron Works for Fortune. She then traveled on her own to Russia. Over five weeks, she took thousands of photos of projects and workers, documenting the Soviet Union's first Five Year Plan for industrialization.

Bourke-White returned to Russia in 1931, at the invitation of the Soviet government, and took more photographs, concentrating this time on the Russian people. This resulted in her 1931 book of photographs, Eyes on Russia. She continued to publish photographs of American architecture, as well, including a famous image of the Chrysler Building in New York City.

In 1934, she produced a photo essay on Dust Bowl farmers, marking a transition to more focus on human interest photographs. She published not only in Fortune but in Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine.

Life Photographer

Henry Luce hired Margaret Bourke-White in 1936 for another new magazine, Life, which was to be photograph-rich. Margaret Bourke-White was one of four staff photographers for Life, and her photograph of Fort Deck Dam in Montana graced the first cover on November 23, 1936. That year, she was named one of America's ten most outstanding women. She was to remain on staff of Life until 1957, then semiretired but remained with Life until 1969.

Erskine Caldwell

In 1937, she collaborated with the writer Erskine Caldwell on a book of photographs and essays about southern sharecroppers in the midst of the Depression, You Have Seen Their Faces. The book, though popular, drew criticism for reproducing stereotypes and for misleading captions which "quoted" the subjects of photos with what were actually words of Caldwell and Bourke-White, not the people depicted. Her 1937 photograph of African Americans after the Louisville flood standing in line under a billboard touting the "American way" and the "world's highest standard of living" helped draw attention to racial and class differences.

In 1939, Caldwell and Bourke-White produced another book, North of the Danube, about Czechoslovakia before the Nazi invasion. That same year, the two were married and moved to a home in Darien, Connecticut.

In 1941, they produced a third book, Say! Is This the U.S.A. They also traveled to Russia, where they were when Hitler's army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, violating the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression pact. They took refuge in the American embassy. As the only Western photographer present, Bourke-White photographed the siege of Moscow, including German bombardment.

Caldwell and Bourke-White divorced in 1942.

Margaret Bourke-White and World War II

After Russia, Bourke-White traveled to North Africa to cover the war there. Her ship to North Africa was torpedoed and sunk. She also covered the Italian campaign. Margaret Bourke-White was the first woman photographer attached to the United States military.

In 1945, Margaret Bourke-White was attached to General George Patton's Third Army when it crossed the Rhine into Germany, and she was present when Patton's troops entered Buchenwald, where she took photographs documenting the horrors there. Life published many of these, bringing those horrors of the concentration camp to the attention of the American and worldwide public.

After World War II

After the end of World War II, Margaret Bourke-White spent 1946 through 1948 in India, covering the creation of the new states of India and Pakistan, including the fighting that accompanied this transition. Her photograph of Gandhi at his spinning wheel is one of the best-known images of that Indian leader. She photographed Gandhi just hours before he was assassinated.

In 1949-1950 Margaret Bourke-White traveled to South Africa for five months to photograph apartheid and mine workers.

During the Korean War, in 1952, Margaret Bourke-White traveled with the South Korean Army, again photographing war for Life magazine.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Margaret Bourke-White was among many who were targeted as suspected communist sympathizers by the FBI.

Fighting Parkinson's

It was in 1952 that Margaret Bourke-White was first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She continued photography until that became too difficult by the end of that decade, and then turned to writing. The last story she wrote for Life was published in 1957. In June of 1959, Life published a story on the experimental brain surgery intended to fight off the symptoms of her disease; this story was photographed by her long-time fellow Life staff photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt.

She published her autobiographical Portrait of Myself in 1963. She formally and fully retired from Life magazine in 1969 to her home in Darien and died in a hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1971.

Margaret Bourke-White's papers are at Syracuse University in New York.

Margaret Bourke-White Essential Information

Background Family

  • Mother: Minne Elizabeth Bourke White, of English and Irish Protestant heritage
  • Father: Joseph White, industrial engineer and inventor, of Polish Jewish heritage, raised as an Orthodox Jew
  • Siblings: two


  • Public school in New Jersey
  • Plainfield High School, Union County, New Jersey, graduated
  • 1921-22: Columbia University, majored in biology, took first class in photography
  • 1922-23: University of Michigan
  • 1924: Purdue University
  • 1925: (Case) Western Reserve University, Cleveland
  • 1926-27: Cornell University, A.B. biology
  • 1948: Rutgers, Litt. D.
  • 1951: DFA, University of Michigan

Marriage and Children

  • Husband: Everett Chapman (married June 13, 1924, divorced 1926; electrical engineering student)
  • Husband: Erskine Caldwell (married February 27, 1939, divorced 1942; writer)
  • Children: none

Books by Margaret Bourke-White

  • Eyes on Russia. 1931.
  • You Have Seen Their Faces, with Erskine Caldwell. 1937.
  • North of the Danube, with Erskine Caldwell. 1939.
  • Say! Is This the U.S.A., with Erskine Caldwell. 1941.
  • Shooting the Russian War. 1942.
  • They Called It "Purple Heart Valley": A Combat Chronicle of the War in Italy. 1944.
  • "Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly": A Report on the Collapse of Hitler's "Thousand Years." 1946.
  • Halfway to Freedom: A Study of the New India in the Words and Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. 1949.
  • A Report on the American Jesuits. 1956.
  • Portrait of Myself. 1963.

Books About Margaret Bourke-White

  • Sean Callahan, editor. The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. 1972.
  • Vicki Goldberg. Margaret Bourke-White. 1986.
  • Emily Keller. Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer's Life. 1996.
  • Jonathan Silverman. For the World to See: The Life of Margaret Bourke-White. 1983.
  • Catherine A. Welch. Margaret Bourke-White: Racing with a Dream. 1998.

Film About Margaret Bourke-White

  • Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White. 1989.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Margaret Bourke-White." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Margaret Bourke-White. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Margaret Bourke-White." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).