For two decades, beginning in the late 1920s, photographer Margaret Bourke-White went where no other woman -- and few men -- dared to go. She perched atop a construction crane over ladles of white-hot metal, balanced on scaffolding 1,000 feet above the Manhattan sidewalk, and shimmied through narrow mine shafts hundreds of feet underground.
While on assignment, earning an average of $100 per day, she risked life and limb, traveling by horseback through the Caucasus Mountains, surviving a torpedo run, accompanying an Air Force crew on a bombing raid, and photographing Holocaust survivors during the emancipation of Buchenwald. Always an intrepid journalist, she interviewed Gandhi mere hours before his assassination, photographed the devastation of postwar Germany, and chronicled the fate of sharecroppers here in the American South.
One of few females in an elite, male-dominated world, her work was published by leading magazines of the day, such as Fortune, PM, and Life, drawing comparisons to gifted photojournalist Walker Evans. Along with Charles Sheeler and Lewis Hine, she received commissions from fast-growing corporations such as Eastern Airlines, Otis Steel Mill, the Chrysler Corporation, and Lincoln Electric Company. Like those of Paul Strand and Alfred Steiglitz, her photographs -- admired as much for their artistic qualities as for their journalistic integrity -- hung in the Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Rockefeller Center's vast rotunda.
A selection of Bourke-White's industrial photographs, curated by Stephen Bennett Phillips of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is currently on display at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Some 70 years later, these iconic images still bristle with vitality and movement:
Twin crescents of perforated metal flicker in a fireworks bath, an interactive sculpture Bourke-White found at an International Harvester plant. A Chaplinesque scene at Chrysler shows a trinity of colossal gears, dwarfing a worker toiling away below. An overhead shot of New York's garment district resembles a set of pushpins, assembled willy-nilly on a bulletin board; the effect is startling, dizzying, and glorious. The curlicue gates intersecting the camera's view of Cleveland's Terminal Tower juxtaposes fanciful swirls with the no-nonsense architecture that rises, unimpeded, to pierce the sky. A close-up of women's shoes becomes abstract art, a contrast of shadow and light.
"She was truly fearless, and she had an incredible sense of design," Phillips says of Bourke-White. "I think people will be amazed that she took photos like these and surprised by the beauty of these images."
Phillips credits a single photo, a circa-1935 image titled Steps, Washington, D.C., for piquing his interest in Bourke-White's early, design-oriented work. The 11-by-13-inch photograph, donated to The Phillips Collection in 1996, is an astonishing study in black and white. Shot from the lower right side of a wide, stone staircase, which undulates like a gray ribbon across the paper, the image is a geometric tour de force -- even including a black-suited man who hurries downward near the top of the frame.
"As a curator here, I'm responsible for understanding the collection," Phillips says, "so it became my quest to understand Bourke-White's concepts." Captivated by Steps, he traveled to Syracuse University to peruse the photographer's archives, which include her cameras, diaries, business and personal correspondence, and thousands of images. After an initial survey, he compiled 150 early photographs that highlighted her fascination with industrial design. In 2003, The Phillips Collection displayed the selected works and published a dazzling 200-page catalog, augmented with essays, historical transcripts, and extensive notes.
"People who have seen these photos love the fact that they illustrate American history," Phillips notes. "Most people who know of Bourke-White think of her Dust Bowl-period photos or picture her in a flying suit right after the concentration camps were liberated. From the response we've gotten, people are very excited to see a different side of Bourke-White."