FOR A BIOGRAPHER, Margaret Bourke-White presents a wily and elusive prey. Images of over-achievement crowd our minds: Bourke-White in fleece-lined flight suit, camera in hand, set for a bombing run in North Africa; Bourke-White perched on a gargoyle, 61 stories above New York; in India, about to interview Gandhi at a spinning wheel; in war correspondent's togs in Korea, headed for the front. If she appears "larger than life -- perhaps even larger than Life," in Vicki Goldberg's phrase, it was not by accident. Bourke-White polished her own image with all the care she brought to composing her famous photographs, rearranging the facts of her life -- including her hyphenated name -- to impart a higher gloss. She was born plain Margaret White. She tacked her mother's maiden name in front at the outset of her career. She published an autobiography that skillfully "kept its secrets," and burned most of her diaries shortly before she died.
So the trail is confusing. And others have been there before. Only three years ago, Jonathan Silverman published a coffee table volume with photos shown to better advantage than in this book, where they have been gathered into clumps in family album format. But Goldberg brings other dimensions that set her apart. A photography critic and art historian by trade, she explores the development of Bourke-White's career in a way that brings fresh insights into the photographs themselves. Unwilling to settle for the Bourke-White legend, she spent four years reexamining her remaining diaries, notes and letters and talking to countless other witnesses to Bourke-White's carefully-edited script. The result is a fascinating portrayal of Bourke-White, her work, and the extraordinary events that led to her triumphs.
As Goldberg's intricate account unfolds, you realize the incredible extent to which this ferociously independent woman in fact depended on others to achieve her success, and the positively uncanny way that destiny -- or plain dumb luck -- kept conspiring against all odds to push her to the top of her profession and keep her there. History itself seemed to bend and twist to supply new fuel for her ambition, new fields for her to conquer.
Her father, an inarticulate but brilliant engineer and inventor, taught her as a child to see the beauty of machines, and what little formal training she had was in a photography course that stressed design and composition over technique. It was a perfect esthetic conditioning to bring poetry to the cauldrons of molten metal at the Otis Steel Company, scene of an early triumph. But with the primitive equipment of the time, and her own lack of experience, it was only the help of friends from a Cleveland photo shop that enabled her to capture the images she sought.
She took little interest in the mechanics of her trade. Only late in her career did a Life colleague manage to teach her to use a light meter, although she had a drawer full of them in her desk. She became a perfectionist about her prints, but depended on others in the darkroom to achieve the final effects.
Her timing was faultless. Just as she learned to capture the beauty she saw in slag heaps, dams and skyscrapers, America's love affair with industrial power was reaching its peak. And fate decreed that she encounter another superachiever, heading for the high ground, who needed her skills to achieve his goals. Henry Luce had seen her work in a midwestern paper and invited her to New York to join a new magazine he was launching that would sing of the beauty and usefulness of the machinery she had learned to portray.
As her work for Fortune evolved, she landed at the cutting edge of the newly emerging hybrid -- photojournalism. Six years of practice there positioned her perfectly for Luce's next venture. Life's first cover was Bourke-White's famous photograph of the Fort Peck dam, and she had two long photo essays inside. Except for a disastrous interlude at PM, Life became her life.
Photographers were gods at Life. Bearers carried their luggage, their cameras, their lights; booked their planes and hotels; moved the obstructions that blocked their view. ("Is there any way to get this tree out of here?" Bourke-White once asked.) Some at Life say that she invented the "Sherpa" role for the reporters who shouldered the photographers' burdens. There were legends of her imperious demands, and of the notables who willingly carried her bags. Henry Luce was one; Haile Selassie another.
PHOTOJOURNALISM in the Life style required instant cooperation from the humble and the mighty, and here Bourke-White excelled. She had a 1,000-watt charisma that could subdue any man at will. Men turned their factories inside out to accommodate her; pilots risked their lives to fly at the angles her camera required. Her effect on men was awesome, and she "left behind her a wide swath of injured wives," as Goldberg says. Erskine Caldwell left a wife and three children to marry her. "I don't say she was above reproach," his injured wife remarked. "She was above self-reproach." The marriage didn't last. No man could match the heady excitement of Life. She was the first to tell them so . . . but they always came back for more. She didn't use love affairs to advance her work. But somehow they nearly always did, and nearly all her lovers lingered on as friends. Less loving were some of her rival colleagues at Life.
Photographs of people were a weakness. For years they were abstractions that gave scale to the huge dams and factories that she was focusing on. Even when her awareness deepened, many of her shots kept a Grant Wood quality, as though her subjects were designs rather than individuals. She never felt at home with the 35-millimeter cameras that captured people best, and never took to color. Its requirements were too precise.
She loved fame, loved attention, loved the work with an intensity and energy that even kept Parkinson's disease at bay for 20 years before she died. She is called a heroine and a woman pioneer in a man's world, but the gates clanged shut behind her. She was the first to soar to such breathtaking heights in her field, but also the last. As Goldberg makes clear, her fame and fortune took root in conditions that came and went in her lifetime -- a world that no longer exists. The next media star to soar to such breathtaking heights would come from a different branch of the trade.