Rachel McBride Lindsey
Saint Louis University, USA
The World that Maggie Built: Margaret Bourke-White and the Birth of Modern American Citizenship
Margaret Bourke-White was explorer of continents, conquerer of the skies, keeper of alligators, and charmer of the world’s most famous and infamous personalities. She was the first accredited woman war correspondent and among the first to document Apartheid in South Africa. She was, if Life would have had its way, to be the first person to make photographs on the moon. Fifty years after her passing, her name has largely been forgotten. But the world she created through her pictures is one that we all recognize as our own.
Maggie’s first camera was given to her by her mother when she enrolled at Columbia University in 1921—an Ica Reflex with a cracked lens. After college, her work caught the attention of Henry R. Luce. Bourke-White was hired as a photographer for Luce’s Fortune in 1929 where her assignments took her from Massachusetts to Russia to the dustbowl of the American Midwest. She later photographed the bombing of Moscow, an American bombing mission on the coast of Africa, the war in Italy, and Nazi extermination camps. Alongside her photojournalism, Bourke-White was a successful advertising photographer, capturing the contradictions and aspirations of the American spirit in gleaming steel.
This presentation positions Margaret Bourke-White among the architects of modern America. The reasons she has been forgotten are wrapped up in the politics of her time and ours. Rather than tell a story about forgetting, however, I seize on the opportunity that Bourke-White’s life and work present to gain clearer insight into the ways that her photographs facilitated ideas, subjects, and representations of American citizenship. This paper focuses on her early life and career in the 1920s and 1930s. In so doing, I position her as a key actor in the re-birth of American photojournalism as a decisively political discourse that continues to shape American life to this day.