The exhibition at Palazzo Reale in Milan brings together the most extraordinary images taken by Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most representative and emblematic figures of photojournalism. During the course of the exhibition many of the images were already in my mind. Yet, almost as a reflex my brain thought they were taken by a man. This way I discovered the story of a great woman, her vision, and her life. Her work almost doesn’t feel real. Her story, what she lived was a great inspiration.
Margaret Bourke-White explored every aspect of photography: from the first images dedicated to the world of industry and corporate projects to the great reportages for the most important newspapers such as Fortune and Life; from the visual chronicles of the Second World War and the Holocaust to the famous portraits of Stalin and Gandhi, from the South Africa of apartheid to the America of racial conflicts up to the thrill of aerial visions of the American continent.
The exhibition is part of “The Talents of Women”, a program promoted by the Department of Culture of the City of Milan dedicated to the universe of women. The objective is not only to produce new levels of awareness on the role of women in social life but also to concretely help to pursue the principle of equity and equal opportunities that, from our Constitution, must be able to transfer into everyday representations and cultures.
Born in New York on June 14, 1904, and grew up in a middle-class family. She enrolled at Columbia University attracted by the natural sciences, but soon, thanks to the course taught by Clarence White directs his attention towards photography.
Photography should not be a field of contention between men and women. As a woman it is perhaps more difficult to obtain people’s confidence and perhaps sometimes a certain form of jealousy plays a negative role; but when you reach a certain level of professionalism it is no longer a question of being a man or a woman.
In 1928 she decided to move to Ohio where she opened a photographic studio, specializing in architectural, design and industrial photography. In Cleveland she photographed the blast furnaces and started to be considered the first famous industrial photographer. In order to shoot, she climbed on the ledges of the tallest skyscrapers, flew over cities and went into the most dangerous areas of factories. In fact, her obstinacy and ambition did not stop her in front of the high temperatures of the castings, in her search for new photographic technical solutions, nor did they keep her away from long hours of work in unhealthy environments.
In 1930 she was the first Western photographer to go to the USSR, making reports on Soviet industry. In 1937, together with the successful writer Erskine Caldwell, she showed the faces on the tragic conditions of life in the American countryside devastated by drought, famine, and poverty. In the same years, for “Life” is sent to Europe: in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to document the advance of Nazism and the impending war.
Back in the U.S. Margaret imposes her desire to become a war reporter on the front lines of the front. No woman had ever been accredited by the U.S. Army on the theaters of war, but the determination of the photographer together with the power of persuasion that could have a magazine like “Life”, the most widespread on U.S. territory, have the better. Margaret Bourke-White is accredited to the photographic pool of the army, she is drawn specifically for the war.
Surely Margaret Bourke-White in war gave the best of herself both as a woman and as a photographer. Her lens stops on battlefields, on moments of rest, field hospitals, bombings. She photographed North Africa, the slow ascent of Italy, which had become a secondary front after the Normandy landings; and above all, with her film, she stopped the tragic moments of the arrival of the Americans led by General Patton at Buchenwald. The images are historical documents of enormous value. In 1947 she is in Pakistan and India, where she interviews and photographs Ghandi only a few hours before he is killed. In 1950 she was in South Africa: she described apartheid and went two miles underground to portray the work of gold miners.
In 1963 she writes the autobiography “Portrait of Myself”. The last years she lives retired in her house in Connecticut, with the little money set aside spent on medical care due to Parkinson, where she died in 1971.