Margaret Bourke-White, one of the 20th century’s best-known female photographers, discovered beauty in the raw aesthetic of American industry and its factories. Brazenly breaking into a field dominated by men, she became not only a famous photojournalist but also a celebrity personality.

About 150 black-and-white photographs taken by Bourke-White are currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibit, titled “Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936,” is the first major display devoted to the critical early years in her life, when she developed her aesthetic vision.

Beginning with her earliest pictorialist view of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, taken in 1927, the exhibit culminates with her well-known 1936 photographs for the cover and lead story of the first issue of Life magazine.

Life sent Bourke-White to New Deal, Mont., to photograph the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a multimillion dollar project undertaken by the Public Works Administration. Titled “Fort Peck Montana Diversion Tunnel (1936),” this photograph on display at the PMA captures the abstract design she discovered in a close-up of the dam construction.

Bourke-White set the tone for Life and was a leading photographer for the magazine for more than 20 years, officially retiring in 1969.

Born in 1904 in the Bronx and raised in Bound Brook, N. J., Bourke-White’s sense of wonder at the power and beauty of machinery emerged when she was a child. Her father, an inventor and photographer, took her at age 11 to a factory where metal machine parts were made from molten steel. She was captivated by the overwhelming sense of energy and power.

Trained in modernist compositional techniques, Bourke-White photographed with an artist’s eye, focusing on the raw beauty of machines. Her 1929 photograph “Chrysler, Gears,” for example, emphasizes the immensity of the gear. The worker, placed barely inside the frame, is there only to provide a sense of scale.

Other photographs in the PMA exhibit that capture industrial America include “Campbell Soup: Peeling Onions,” 1935; “NBC Mural: Microphone,” 1933; “Goodyear Tire and Rubber: Safety-Child on Tricycle,” 1933; “Montgomery Ward: Mailing Catalogs,” 1934; “NBC Mural: W A E F Broadcasting Tower,” 1933; and “Texas Oil: Looking Up Inside Oil Derrick,” 1935.

Bourke-White also became known for her unusual architectural photographs, which focused on interesting patterns. Some examples in the exhibit include “Steps, Washington D.C.,” 1935; “Covered Walkway: Bermuda,” 1932; and “George Washington Bridge,” 1933.

In 1929, Henry Luce, powerful publisher of Time magazine, hired Bourke-White to take industrial photos for a new periodical focusing on business called Fortune magazine. Luce’s plan with Fortune was to use photography to document all aspects of business and industry. Bourke-White’s swashbuckling style, her relentless self-promotion in an age that admired self-made men and their fortunes, and her reverence for industry itself made her the perfect lens for Luce’s visions.

In 1930, she was sent abroad to capture the rapidly growing German industry. Her ambitions took her beyond, to the Soviet Union. Fortune editors were skeptical because the Soviet Union had never allowed a foreigner into the country to document its industrial growth. Bourke-White convinced Soviet Union officials to let her into the country and her poignant photographs of Russian industry and its people are a high point of the PMA exhibit. Some examples are “USSR Dneprostroi Dam Construction,” 1930; “USSR Stalingrad: Red October Rolling Mills, Iron Peddler” 1930; and “USSR Moscow Ballet School Dancers,” 1931. Bourke-White went on to write a book, “Eyes on Russia,” published in 1931.

In 1952, Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She continued her career, photographing Jesuit priest for Life magazine in 1953. She wrote an autobiography titled “Portrait of Myself,” published by Simon and Schuster in 1963, and officially retired form Life in 1969. She died in 1971.

“Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936” will be on display through March 20. The PMA, located at Seven Congress Square in downtown Portland, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission: $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students with I.D, $2 for children 6 to 17; children under 6 admitted free. The museum is open free of charge from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays. For more information, call 775-6148; or go online to www.portlandmuseumofart.org.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.


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