SUPERFICIALLY, the careers and work of Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Berenice Abbott are much alike. All three achieved fame and a place in the photographic history of the last five decades as makers of powerful documentary pictures. Their photos were seen in Life and Look, collected in books, and exhibited in museums. Each has in her body of work those singular, startling images that are absorbed permanently into the viewer's mind and encapsulate an era. None had much formal training and, for each, the Depression years were ones of creative awakening. They spent their lives on the move, finding the subjects that galvanized their art by traveling the countryside and the world -- few studio shots in these pages. They weren't part of any circle of photographers, and, though they knew the stars of their profession like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen (and each other) they found no spiritual kinship in these colleagues. Finally, and, of course, the true reason why their photos are considered together, they are women.

Not one of them lived or perhaps even desired a conventional female life. Only Lange managed to achieve a happy and enduring marriage, and that was related to her professional activities, borne of the fusion of her work with that of her husband. And only Lange had children -- two boys -- though they were raised primarily by relatives and friends or, as Robert Coles writes in his moving essay accompanying the Lange photographs, "all left behind, as their mother took pictures of other mothers, struggling to make do with other children." Beyond these points of commonality, however, there are three independent spirits with very different goals, modus operandi, and, as their books attest, individual, in fact, unique achievements.

In her pictures and her style of living, Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) is the glamour girl of this trio -- the casting of Candace Bergen to play this photographer in the film Gandhi seems right on target. She came to national prominence at the age of 25 with her pictures of industrial subjects. Author Johathan Silverman portrays her as obessed with the equipment and activities she found in the factories where steel, cars, trains, and cement were made, and this passion for finding "beauty in the big thing of the age" became the focus of her existence. The early shots of pistons, turbines, and all manner of mechanical parts are done in soft-focus, with chiaroscuro lighting, a technique that artists heretofore preferred for images of lovers, or, at the very least, nudes. Small wonder that corporate and advertising agency executives sought her services. As one ad man hypothesized, the best way to sell a 5-cent bag of peanuts for 10 cents "would be to hire Miss Margaret Bourke-White to take a picture of the peanuts and then people would think they were worth 25 cents."

In 1929, Henry Luce thought highly of Bourke-White's value too, giving her $1,000 a month to devote half her time to his new magazine Fortune. So began her long association with Time-Life publications, a relationship that would run, on and off, throughout her entire professional life and give her the mandate to cover the Dust Bowl tragedy in the '30s, the European front during World War II, Gandhi and the Indian struggle for independence, the Korean War, and South African race riots -- only a few of many assignments. Frequently, great personal risk was involved getting the story, but this "girl photographer," as, unfortunately, the press often billed her, seems to have been as attracted by danger as she was by power.

Among the shortcomings of this book is the author's failure to present anything relating to Bourke-White's childhood, education, and first marriage -- I kept searching among the galleys thinking there must be a missing chapter -- or to analyze her evolution as an artist or a person. Silverman prefers the role of a passive observer, but, to the detriment of this text, his vision is neither sharp nor inclusive. So many unanswered questions remain: Why this early obsession with industrial progress -- a passion so strong that it blinds her to any consideration of the worker, especially in her enraptured reporting on Stalinist Russia? Did her ambition cause her to adjust her photographs to cater to commercial interests? Did her skill at, in her own phrase, "getting along" make her compromise her political or social views? Did she form relationships with anyone not directly connected to a photo assignment? Her second and last marriage to writer Erskine Caldwell survived only while they were collaborating on books and articles. Silverman recounts that when Caldwell accepted an invitation from Hollywood, he asked Bourke-White to join him. Her response, according to the author, was to resist the "golden chains" and get a divorce. Did she hesitate? Or later feel regret? The book is silent on these questions, as on a considerable number of others.

Nor does Silverman spend much time reflecting on the development of her photographic style. Always with a penchant for the theatrical image, Bourke-White tended to search out the grand statement in her early work. Her Russian peasants in the 1931-32 series are not individual but icons of progress. The small, intimate moment between man and camera eluded her at the start of her career. She liked a few large, simple forms, bravura lighting effects, and straight-on compositions -- though occasionally she'd shoot from a low angle to underscore the heroics of the scene.

However, Bourke-White's experience in photographing the Corn Belt drought of 1934 for Fortune and sharecroppers and tenant farmers for the 1936 book she and Caldwell created entitle You Have Seen Their Faces appears to mark a turning point that gave her insight into the meaning of her own work. One incident mentioned in the text reveals a great deal about the photographer and her attitude toward her subjects. Caldwell and Burke-White entered a black woman's cabin to take some pictures. The decision was made to shoot the lady of the house as she looked into a mirror, and Bourke-White then proceeded to rearrange all the items on a nearby table so that when they were seen in the photo they'd look more attractive. Caldwell later told the photographer that she'd been "callous", insensitive to her subject's feelings. Apparently, this moment and others during these projects affected Bourke-White deeply. After 1935, she stopped taking commercial jobs, and centered her creative efforts around socially significant content. Her visual style changed too. There is less melodrama in her later work, and the power of images such as the series made at Buchenwald is achieved through understatement, confronting the material directly and simply, without alteration for the camera, without the cosmetic benefits of flashy lighting.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) also experienced a redirection of her life and work during the '30s. until that time, her career, though far from the huge public success of Bourke-White's, was a comfortable one. Lange had her own portrait studio in San Francisco in the 1920s and built a pleasant life there -- marrying the Western regionalist artist Maynard Dixon and moving in the bohemian circles of the city. Then she began traveling with Dixon as he searched for painting subjects, and by 1930-31 Lange, drawn to the plight of the homeless people were streaming through New Mexico, had taken on the financially and emotionally tenuous career of a documentary photographer. Generally she shot only out of doors, using natural light, and didn't tamper with the scene before her. Never a technician, she was indifferent to the choice of film or paper. Though Lange never took anyone's picture without their permission, people don't seem to be performing for her camera. As critic Willard Van Dyke wrote, "Her method is to eradicate from her mind before she starts, all ideas which she might hold regarding the situation -- her mind like an unexposed film." Or, as Robert Coles explains, "She was a casually dressed, alert woman who asked direct questions, then pulled out her cameras."

In 1935, Lange is finally hired by California's Relief Administration to do the work she had already been pursuing for several years for no remuneration other than the satisfaction of her personal needs. Paul Taylor, an economist at the University of California, wanted illustrations for his study of agricultural labor. And so calling her a "clerk/stenographer" to get by federal red tape, they traveled and documented the "human erosion" they saw in the farm communities of the Southwest. The report Taylor and Lange produced resulted in appropriations for the first migrant workers' camp. It also was the occasion of her divorce from Dixon, marriage to Taylor, and the discovery of her calling as an artist -- though Coles notes, "Lange seldom raised the issue of "art"; she cared for the "resonance". . . ." Once she found her subject and her goal -- particular individuals caught in moments that capture the need for social and political change -- Lange pursued it all across the United States during the five years she was employed by Roy Stryker's unit of the Farm Security Administration. Later, she was to train her camera and social conscience on subjects as varied as the Japanese-American internment camps, the San Francisco conference where the United Nations charter was drafted, and the public defender system in California.

The array of images made over her lifetime are given a most elegant and appropriate presentation in this book. Robert Coles' remarks are especially apt. He writes primarily about Lange, but in his comments are also heard the voices of Paul Taylor, the poet/physician William Carlos Williams, Coles himself and his wife, and others who have faced the problems and challenges of looking closely at the lives of "ordinary people" and reporting back on this subject to the rest of the world. Coles' essay is, in a sense, a variation on the theme which Lange's photos strike so vividly.

Like Lange, Berenice Abbott (1904-) resisted the comfort and the control of producing photographs in a studio. Abbott also believed in pictures made without subterfuge -- no trick exposures, no set-ups. However, the motivation behind this photographer's devotion to "straight" photos is very different from Lange's. Berenice Abbott, still active and living in Maine, doesn't want to change society through her work. For her, the picture is an end in itself. Alone among these three documentarians, Abbott derives her photographic sensibility from values she acquired from the fine arts.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbot soon exhibited her characteristically independent spirit and moved to New York City, without contacts or money, when she was 20. She fell in with the art crowd, and soon settled on sculpture as her chosen profession. In 1921, Abbott set off for Paris to acquaint herself with modernist doctrines, and there she met the two figures in her creative life -- photographers Man Ray and Eugene Atget. Ray, who was well established as a portrait photographer and darling of the avant-garde, gave her a job in his studio and, gradually, Abbott learned the technical aspects of her trade. But Man Ray's aesthetic did not inspire the fledgling photographer -- for that, she had Atget. In 1925, when Abbott met the then obscure French artist, Atget was near the end of his lifelong documentation of the city of Paris. He was unknown to most of the art community, desperately poor, and, as it turned out, in the final two years of his life. Nevertheless, Abbott was profoundly moved by his images, and when he died in 1927, she managed to find the funds from her newly established portrait studio to buy his entire body of work -- nearly 1,500 glass plates and 8,000 prints. Since that time, she has selflessly dedicated herself to promoting his work, for, as Abbott has said, "When someone is good it is your obligation to help."

If Abbott's pictures are evidence, she in turn gained much from the bent, elderly