Photographer Margaret Bourke-White accomplished many firsts in her lifetime — she is considered the first woman war photographer and the first foreigner allowed to photograph in the Soviet Union. Her work is on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine and her career helped pave a path for the women photographers who came after. Bourke-White’s uncanny ability to convey sentiments and stories in pictures, no matter the assignment, made her one of the most important and prolific photographers of the 20th century.
As a child, Bourke-White’s father, Joseph White, encouraged her interest in photography by sharing his love for optics and printmaking with her. After White’s death in 1922, Bourke-White’s mother, Minnie Bourke, purchased for her a secondhand camera that kick-started her profession as a photographer. She graduated from Cornell University in 1927 after studying under Photo-Secessionist Clarence White and soon after started her own business in Cleveland.
Her striking and undeniably modern pictures caught the eye of magazine publisher Henry Luce, who in 1930 offered Bourke-White a staff position at Fortune magazine. Her work there allowed her the opportunity to document emerging industries in prewar Germany. In 1935, she became the first foreigner granted permission to shoot within the Soviet Union. The next year, Luce once again offered Bourke-White a job — this time at his new magazine, Life.
For the rest of her career, Bourke-White photographed for Life magazine, documenting some of the most impactful moments of the 20th century: from the battlefields of World War II to the harsh realities of segregation in the American South. Margaret Bourke-White died in 1971 from Parkinson’s disease at age 67.
These pictures highlight the incredible career and everlasting legacy of Margaret Bourke-White.