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MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE

April 8 - May 21, 2005, at Apex Fine Art, West Hollywood

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.




"At the Time of the Louisville
Flood," 1937, gelatin silver print.







“Ford Motor Company Foreman
Shields His Eyes,” gelatin silver print.







"Russell Birdsall & Ward Bolt & Nut
Company”, 1931, gelatin silver print.







“Ghandi at Spinning
Wheel”, gelatin silver print.

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the most celebrated photographers of her era. She was an amazing woman who excelled in the then male dominated world of photo-journalism. Picked by Henry Luce to be the first photographer for Fortune Magazine in 1930, she would gain even more fame with her unforgettable image of the Fort Peck Dam that graced the premier issue of Life Magazine.

The stories of her physical courage are legendary; she was the first woman to fly on a combat bombing mission during World War Two. Bourke-White was also fearless in the face of German bombers in Moscow. Abandoned by all the men at a reception; she stayed at the window photographing the anti-aircraft fire as the bombs fell. Finally, she was convinced to seek safety in the bomb shelter--and moments after she left a bomb destroyed the position she had occupied.

Bourke-White’s images of the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp are among the most evocative of the Second World War. One can only image the horror of being present to document the immediate aftermath of history’s most barbaric and systematic slaughter.

While the artist’s courage and heroics combined with her larger-than-life personae make her seem more like a super-hero than an artist, it is the images that ultimately sustain her legacy. Only a handful of commercial photographers have produced a body of work so outstanding as to warrant inclusion in major museum collections. The formal quality of her images, combined with a unique ability to capture the essence and humanity of the moment, elevates her work.

Her advertisement for the “Russell Birdsall & Ward Bolt & Nut Company” (1931) is a classic example of the blending of commerce and art. This crisp image is the perfect example of the straight photographic style that Edward Weston and Ansel Adams made famous with the f/64 group. The soft focus and romantic hand-made images of the earlier pictorialists has been replaced by images of formalist control that convey industrial might. Like Paul Strand’s earlier images of lathes and motion picture cameras, Bourke-White takes a catalog photo of bolts and turns it into a monumental metaphor for America’s growing commercial power. The blending (or battle) of high and low art that consumed much art debate of the twentieth century is perfectly realized here.

“At the Time of the Louisville Flood” (1937) is one of the quintessential images of the Great Depression. A large billboard dominates the scene. The advertisement announces the “world’s highest standard of living” and shows a happy white family (with dog) driving their new car, proclaiming “there’s no way like the American Way.” Below the sign, we see a line of African-Americans patiently waiting for relief. The car’s occupants are oblivious to the gathered people, and is about to, figuratively, run them over. The contrast of economic realities in depression-era America is eloquently encapsulated.

This show gathers a diverse grouping of Bourke-White images, from gold miners in Africa to Ghandi, from the advertisements to the inner workings of large industrial plants. The superb technical mastery of her medium is blended with humanism that conveys a felt sense of social justice. The results are nothing less than some of the most memorable images in the history of photography.