Margaret Bourke-White’s memoir “Portrait of Myself”

“Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.”

Margaret Bourke-White’s memoir is both inspirational and familiar. As a woman, an adventurer, and photojournalist her stories gripped me, and her anecdotes and private thoughts made me feel as if she would have been my friend. Although her career began in a different world nearly a hundred years ago (memoir was published in 1963), her voice is modern. I can’t help thinking that had she been alive today, she would have fit in with reporters at Kabul’s hotel Mustafa or had drinks with the regulars at New York’s Half King, no doubt she would have out dressed almost everyone.

Embarrassingly, having not had the foresight to go to journalism school, I had never heard of Margaret Bouke-White until about a year ago when I started helping out with the social media feed for , a website that remembers women photojournalists from the film era. I had heard of men; Walter Cronkite, Ernest Hemingway, David Brinkley, Edward Murrow, but something about MBW let history place her into a less famous category of journalism giants. That’s a pity because Margaret Bourke-White put the journalist in photojournalism. She was a badass before it was ok to say the word ass. She was brave and powerful and made her place in the world, beholden to no one, and she never took no for an answer when she wanted a yes.

Born in 1904, she was the kind of child that could coax birds into her hands, a skill I doubt she ever lost. Compared to other turn-of-the-century childhoods, hers was eccentric, in a home filled with animals and biological experiments. Her mother who kept her maiden name (Bourke) encouraged MBW to be bold at an early age. “Learning to do things fearlessly was considered important by both of my parents. Mother had begun when I was quite tiny to help me over my childish terrors. Encouraging me to enjoy being alone instead of dreading it.”

Originally she wanted to be a herpetologist because she thought being a snake expert would be a good way to travel. She was an early outlier and unabashedly prioritized curiosity and adventure to the more womanly arts of the time.

MBW’s early work was mostly architectural. Seen here, the Terminal Tower in Cleveland.

She swatted obstacles to her being a woman away with single sentences unless it made for a good story. Like when she wanted to rent the penthouse of the Chrysler building as her studio. The management feared “Since I was a female, young and not too plain, I would surely get married before much time went by. That would put a stop to all this photography business.” In order to secure the space, she had to apply for a job at the Chrysler building janitor as there was a law in New York that stipulated no one could live in an office except a janitor. Sadly for her, someone else got the job, but Fortune ended up co-signing for her to get the lease. It’s also worth noting that she kept two alligators as pets in her studio. She was not without some eccentric weirdness.

MBW photographing NYC perched on a gargoyle on the Chrysler Building.
The first cover of LIFE magazine, Ft Peck dam in Montana.

“To be a woman in a man's world’ as people often phrase it, is usually — I have found- a distinct advantage.” she noted, excepting combat situations where “men tend to overprotect, and no over protected photographer can get images by remote control.” Clearly, remotes had not been invented yet. She had to plea with the U.S. air force to let ger go on a bombing mission, weaseler extraordinaire, she succeed.

While not vain, MBW flaunted her femininity, carefully matching her dress to the covering cloth that went over the back of the camera. She wore red shoes and put a red bow in her hair to ameliorate herself to Stalin when she took his portrait — it didn’t work, he wasn’t very friendly and refused to cooperate with her requests, like to sit down — she wanted him to look more comfortable. To be fair her impression of him was “What an insignificant-looking man!”

Throughout the book, she mentions her love of fashion and clothing and style in general. When a naval ship she was reporting on in WW2 was hit by a torpedo and sank she wasn’t sad about her 5 cameras being lost “that is the hazard of war,” but rather the loss of her cosmetics case. I think she was kidding, she was probably upset about both. Remembering the ordeal, from a lifeboat she wrote “ I could think of nothing but the magnificent pictures unfolding before me which I longed to take and could not. I suppose for all photographers, their greatest pictures are their untaken ones, and i am no expectation.”

The memoir documents her career highlights from her early days as a corporate photographer, Fortune, then as a staff photographer at LIFE. The range of assignments she covered is astounding, and few photographers if any, today can compare: The New Deal in America, Civil Rights in the southern states, World War 2 in North Africa, Italy, and Germany, the Korean War, Apartheid in South Africa, Gandhi and the partition of India and Pakistan, are just a few highlights. Her portfolio of adventure is endless, but the real gems are the personal stories: Gandhi joked that she was torturing him, and Haile Selassie carried her cameras. There is also a healthy dose of photojournalism deep thinking, with some shop talk mixed in.

Queue of black residents of Louisville KY waiting for a distribution of relief supplies during the 1937 Ohio River flood.
WW2, outfitted in the first war correspondent uniform designed for women correspondents.

In her late 40’s MBW developed Parkinson’s. While she hints modestly all along, it is at this point in her story the enormity of her unstoppable, relentless grit becomes apparent. “ I had always been arrogantly proud of my health and durability. Strong men might fall by the wayside, but I was ‘Maggie the Indestructible.” She fought like a mad badger. She was selfless and spoke openly about her illness. She walked miles and miles every day and exercised continually to keep the dwindling strength she had. She even tried experimental brian surgery to buy herself more time. “ I realized only too well that I was on an escalator which was moving down while I was trying to run up.” She let her friend and fellow LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph her as she went through rehab, and as she suffered. It's fitting the while the photo essay is 50 years old it means as much today and the soulful way Maggie looks at her friend is rightfully immortalized. MBW died at 67 years old in 1971.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Some of the best quotes — there are so many, I could post half the book:

“I know of nothing to equal the happy expectancy of finding something new, something unguessed in advance, something only you would find, because as well as being a photographer.”

“I can sleep on anything moving as long as it's moving in the right direction.”

“Later, when I had time to think about it, I marveled at the change in me the instant thought of work gave way to thoughts of survival. With the possibility of work, nothing seemed too dreadful to face.”

“Harry Luce carried my cameras as we photographed factories. They were something in those days. My mainstay was a 5 x Corona View (and still a great camera) with extra bellows extension accommodate convertible Bausch & Lomb lenses, a sturdy wooden tripod with a massive tilt-top head. And a weighty box of 1100 watt Johnson Vent Lites strung up with masses or reinforced heavy rubber”

“Photographing anything so perishable as ice cream in color in the early 30s, was an heroic undertaking because of the interminably long exposures, which involved making three separate color plates to be matched up later.”

“I knew I would never run out of subjects that interested me while on this earth.”

“I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.”

“Right here in my own country, there were worlds about which I knew almost nothing.”

“I remember one occasion when we went to photograph a Negro woman (her words) ….She had thick glossy air and I had decided to take her picture as she combed it. She had a bureau made of a wooden box with a curtain tacked to it and lots of little homemade things. I rearranged everything. After we left Erskine (Caldwell) spoke to me about it. How neat her bureau had been. How she must have valued all her little possessions and how she had them tidily arranged her way, which was not my way. This was a new point of view to me. I felt I had done violence.”

“Usually I was the only woman photographer and the technique I followed was to literally crawl between the legs of my competitors and pop my head and camera up for part of a second before the competition slapped me down again. At least, the point of view was different from that of most of the others whose pictures were, perforce, almost identical, and, anyway, I’ve always liked the caterpillar view.”

“I wanted no conflict of loyalties — that would be too painful. My first loyalty was to Life. There was no secret about it. My professional work came first.”

“I go to every important portrait appointment with a conviction that my cameras are going to cease functioning — a dread that never leaves me even after years of experience.”

Of Haile Selassie, “To have a king admire my hair and emperor carry my cameras was more than I had been accustomed to.”

“Then I began to notice myself, “Why is my mouth so dry?” I wondered. “Never in my life have a felt such dryness. This must be fear.” (while on sinking ship in WW2).”

“The impersonality of modern war has become stupendous, grotesque. Even in the heart of battle, one human being's ray of vision lights only a narrow slice of the whole, and all the rest is remote — so incredible remote.”

“I saw and photographed the piles of naked, lifeless bodies, the human skeletons in furnaces, the living skeletons who would die the next day because they had to wait too long for deliverance, the pieces of tattooed skin used for lampshades. Using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.” - on reaching Buchenwald at the end of WW2 1945

“War makes its own morals. Looting has its own code of ethics. First of all, you don't call it looting, or stealing or appropriating, or requestioning or scrounging — but liberating.”

“As photographers, we live through thoughts so swiftly. All our experiences and training is focused toward snatching off the highlights — and necessarily so. That all-significant perfect moment, so essential to capture, is often highly perishable. There may be little opportunity to probe deeper.”

“But a woman who lives a roving life must be able to stand alone. She must have emotional security, which is more important than financial security. There is a richness in life where you stand on your own two feet, although it imposes a certain creed.”

“In Korea 1952 “ I fell back on the pair of miniature cameras which I had strung around my neck. These focused easily and gave me a total of 72 shots, which sounds like a lot, but melts fast in a riot.”

“Before leaving New York, managing Ed Thompson had said, “Maggie take three months if you need it, roaming around Korea, and when you’ve found a new story you think is your story, cable us.”

“I marveled that the same world that could contain a hydrogen bomb and a hand grenade made out of a beer can.”

Cookie baker, rule breaker, leaf raker, risk taker & freelance photojournalist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store