Eisenstaedt once, in a 60 Minutes interview, was challenged about his work. The question was something like, “You take so many frames to get your eventual shot. At the end of the day, isn’t a lot of it luck?” “Of course it’s luck,” he answered. “The amazing thing is how that luck keeps happening to the same people.”
Margaret Bourke-White was beyond lucky. Throughout her career she was admired, resented, shot at, marooned, torpedoed, and just generally damned near adventured to death. She was the photographer who rode with Patton through Germany, and recorded the first unflinching look into Buchenwald.
Her list of gender triumphs— first woman to do this, first woman to do that—is only barely longer than her list of photographer firsts. She achieved so much with such incredible artistry and passion that she seems like a novelist’s construct, a bit of fantasy for little girls to tie their dreams to. But she was very real. Why no one has ever seen fit to make a movie about this woman is beyond me.
People tend to remember her for her industrial pictures taken in steel factories, or the fascinating shots of bridges and cables and dams. She graced the cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine, a magazine that virtually defined the American photographic ideal for the twentieth century. But for me, it was her eye for humanity which created her strongest pictures.
For me, as a child of the segregated south, her photos about race ring particularly true. This photograph seems to encapsulate the flavor and mood of the South in those times far better than any novel or movie has ever done. Look at those faces. Nothing is hidden here.
The photos from this project are so simple.
During the Depression years she worked on a project with her then husband, Erskine Caldwell, titled You Have Seen Their Faces. It was a story about poverty, about the cycle created when the very poorest among us are exploited by the wealthiest. This is not a cycle unique to America. It is the story of mankind. As the lady sings, “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose…”
You may have noticed that almost all her greatest pictures are in black and white. Yet, for her segregation series she made a conscious decision to shoot in color. Huh. Lucky choice, I guess.
Bourke-White could have easily done the artsy thing; she could have been the darling of everyone. Certainly, she could make a camera walk and talk and dance to an organ, so it would have been easy for her to go the Stieglitz route and talk about the big artistic picture.
That was simply not her way. Instead she thought about the pictures she wanted to take and then set about taking them. Just like in the photo above. No dithering. No excuses. She considered herself a photographer. She probably thought she was the best photographer in the world, but I think maybe she was just the luckiest.