American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971), who would have been 108 last week, approached documentary photography with a zeal that left many of her LIFE contemporaries jealous of her “scoops.”
Initially gaining notice from her pictures of economic crisis in 1930s United States, she was the only American photographer in Russia when the Germans bombed Moscow in 1941, and was given access to photograph Joseph Stalin, who she later stated was her most difficult subject because he stood like a stone.
Bourke-White followed stories around Europe, from Italy into Africa. Not known for traveling light, the photographer carried up to 600 pounds of equipment on assignment until all her gear was lost when her ship was torpedoed en route to Africa in December of 1942. After surviving the sinking but unable to save her equipment, she downgraded to only 250 pounds but continued to favor larger format cameras due to the negatives’ detail.
Throughout Germany she followed the Allied advance and captured shocking, iconic images at the Buchenwald concentration camp in April, 1945. In India, Bourke-White shifted from the aftermath of war to a peaceful 1946 portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, who required her to learn how to use a spinning wheel before she was allowed to photograph him.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts wishes a happy belated birthday to a photographer whose commitment to capturing the best images affected not only her own life and career, but continues to inspire photographers today.
Jen Dolen, Photography & New Media intern