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An interior view of the exhibition of Margaret Bourke-White's photographs from 1930-1945
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Snapshots of history

Jörg Harder / hw
March 11, 2013

Works by the legendary American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White are on show in Berlin. From the liberation of Nazi concentration camps to the struggle against apartheid, the fearless photographer captured it.


It could be considered a surreal footnote in cultural history. Just a few hundred meters from Martin Gropius Bau, there on the ruins of Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof, American Margaret Bourke-White photographed emaciated people for a report about survival in war-ravaged Germany in the summer of 1945.

In the images, civilians of the bombed-out city clung to overcrowded railway carriages. They were scrambling to get to the urban hinterland to exchange the last of their belongings for food.

The exhibition at Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau encompasses photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White in the years between 1930 and 1945. Each picture is a testament to the keen eye of the woman who assuredly scaled the male-dominated ranks of the field of photojournalism in the mid-20th century.

Bourke-White had the knack of being present at some of the most decisive moments in history. The images bear witness to the rapid industrial development of the US and the Soviet Union. They document Germany before Hitler, and during the Second World War and the liberation of concentration camps.

Dawn of a new era

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York's Bronx in 1904. Her parents believed in equal education opportunities for boys and girls and actively supported her ambitions. She studied art history, herpetology (the study of amphibians) and zoology.

One day her mother presented her with Ica Reflex camera. She documented campus life with it and sold the photographs to her fellow students. After completing a photography course at university, Bourke-White's hobby became her profession and she developed a talent for capturing fleeting but timeless images.

While working as a freelance commercial photographer in Cleveland, Ohio, Bourke-White acquired an interest in technology and machines, in iron, steel and concrete. Her black-and-white images of the steelworks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the generators in an electric power station, and the bark-stripping machine in a paper mill are stark icons of an unquestioning belief in progress and of the dawning of a new, mechanical era.

As part of a team of photographers at Fortune magazine, Bourke-White was able to travel the world. Always in search of new developments, she wanted to record the economic and societal transformation of the Soviet Union from an agrarian country to an industrial power.

In 1930, the initially unwilling functionaries of the Soviet state granted her access to closely guarded industrial sites. There, as the first foreigner to do so, she documented major construction projects, the bridge over the Dnieper River, iron and steel works in the newly-founded city of Magnitogorsk, and the coal mine in Donetsk.

Cranes, turbines, tractors and agricultural machinery fascinated Margaret Bourke-White, but it was the people who worked in the factories and the land who occupied the foreground in her images.

Atrocities of war

Bourke-White traveled to the Soviet Union on a number of occasions, including in 1941, when Hitler's troops invaded the country. As the only foreign photojournalist she witnessed the German bombardment of Moscow. From the roof of the American embassy, she took snapshots of the hail of bombs on the Kremlin - despite the ban on photographing it.

After the US entered the Second World War, Margaret became the first female war correspondent in the US army. As an accredited photographer she captured the US bombardment of German forces in North Africa at the beginning of 1943 and later accompanied Allied troops at landings in southern Italy.

In March 1945, Bourke-White flew to Frankfurt am Main and shadowed American troops as they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar on April 11. Her images opened a window on the atrocities of the Holocaust: survivors on plank beds, haggard inmates staring blankly from behind barbed-wire fences, piles of corpses.

The citizens of Weimar were forced to see the crimes committed by the Nazis in their name. Bourke-White's photographs document the bewilderment, but also the denial in their faces. Her photographs were later used by US prosecutors as documentary evidence of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials.

In the male-dominated world of American photojournalism, Margaret Bourke-White was pioneer, a veritable "media star." She fearlessly and ambitiously overcame social barriers, in order, as she said, "to be there when history is written."

Around 150 of Margaret Bourke-White's photographs, letters and periodicals can be seen at Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau through April 14, 2013.

Margaret Bourke-White pictured in US Air Force uniform in 1942 for Life Magazine
Margaret Bourke-White pictured in US Air Force uniform in 1942Image: Time & Life/Getty Images
A worker attends to the generator casing of a Soviet hydro-electric power plant, c. 1930, photo by Margaret Bourke-White
A worker attends to the generator casing of a Soviet hydro-electric power plant, c. 1930Image: Time & Life/Getty Images
People gathered at the ruins of Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof in August 1945, photo by Margaret Bourke-White
People gathered at the ruins of Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof in 1945Image: Time & Life/Getty Images
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