A couple of weeks ago, I shared an article that Popular Photography wrote in December 1937 about New York street photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig who at the time was an unknown photographer who had a knack for capturing some of the darkest moments of humanity on the streets of New York.
This week’s Keppler’s Vault comes from the December 1943 issue of Popular Photography and introduces Margaret Bourke-White, who had recently been commissioned by Samuel Goldwyn to photograph the set of his new movie, “The North Star”.
With an impressive resume at the age of 39 when this article was written, Bourke-White, known in Hollywood as “Peggy” had already traveled the world, covering Europe in the 30s, being one of the first western photographers to shoot the Soviet Union, even appearing on a radio broadcast from the country. She had written books and created a couple film shorts that helped educate western journalists to the perils of war and the rise of the Soviet Union.
The article tells the story of how Bourke-White got started with photography while attending Cornell University, shooting her second-hand Ica Reflex to help pay her bills. Her knack for composing images of architecture attracted the attention of a famous New York architect, who was so impressed with her work, persuaded her to make photography her career.
I’ll resist re-typing Bourke-White’s resume as it’s spelled out in detail in the article, but one thing that is immediately clear to me is that this lady had a serious case of GAS, as while shooting for Goldwyn, she brought no less than six cameras, including two Linhofs, a Rolleiflex, Speed Graphic and a British camera called the Soho Reflex. The article goes into detail about each of her cameras along with the lenses and flash equipment she would use to shoot Hollywood stars who quickly accepted her as a member of the “Hollywood elite” treating her as an equal, rather than some lady with a camera.
This short 10 minute documentary serves as a great 21st century introduction to Bourke-White, explaining some of her career highlights.
Throughout her career Margaret Bourke-White became one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, photographing a huge list of historical figures such as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Dwight Eisenhower. She famously shot construction of the Chrysler building in New York City, shot conflicts in Europe, North Africa, the Soviet Union, and was once torpedoed on a boat that sunk in the Mediterranean. It would be a disrespect to say she was one of the most influential female photographers, as doing so automatically suggests that women didn’t deserve to be compared to their male counterparts, which was definitely not the case.
Whether you think you already know Margaret Bourke-White or just like to be impressed, this is a fascinating glimpse into “Peggy” during the peak of her career!
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2020.