Old-School Industrial Art

One of the originators of the “candid camera” technique, Margaret Bourke-White is best remembered as the star photographer of Fortune magazine. She also happens to be the first prominent female photojournalist. A handsome collection of her snapshots now dots the walls of the Phillips Collection in the new exhibition, “The Photography of Design, 1927-1936.”

Most famous are her photographs of the American industrial genesis, which were featured on the covers of Fortune and Life in the early part of the 20th century. Capturing the luster of chrome on gelatin silver prints, Bourke-White’s black and white images of airplane wings and the inner workings of production lines crystallize America’s technological boom.

Bourke-White took two kinds of pictures, those for her employer and those for her own edification. A spray of aluminum rods conveys an unembellished immensity, while a picture of industrial cables borders on the abstract, at least when filtered through her lens. Her photos of slender smokestacks appear to pump bleak and eerie shadows into the heavens. In these types of shots we see her knack for finding humanity in cold man-made constructs.

In her own words, Bourke-White explained, “While it is very important to get a striking picture … it is becoming more and more important to reflect the life that goes on behind these photographs.”

As business-savvy as she was inventive, she catapulted to the top tier of professional photojournalism, moving from Cleveland to New York in a matter of a few years. She found residence at the head of Manhattan’s crown, the Chrysler Building, a sight which is featured extensively in her work. A stately photo of one of the granite gargoyles on her terrace is particularly eye-catching.

The Great Depression forced Bourke-White to move out of her lavish studio apartment atop the Chrysler Building. Rather than let herfinancial woes cast a pall over her work, she channeled her feelings through her art. “Margaret Bourke-White changed,” says Phillips Collection curator Stephen Bennett Phillips. “She snapped into an empathetic mold. She started to work for Life magazine, and on one of her trips to Russia, saw the incredible poverty affecting others in the world. She grew.”

Indeed her photographs did change. The human subjects of her early photographs, usually little more than dressing or living “scenery,” quickly came into focus as people with souls. Several early works feature employees in refineries and factories trying to keep their large, ominous machinery in order. “AEG: Man Working on Generator” may remind some of the Charles Chaplin film “Modern Times,” in which the Little Tramp finds himself getting stuck between the cogs and gears of an engine.

As Bourke-White changed emotionally, her work deepened. A “candid” shot called “Boy with Hammer” is especially affecting. A gaunt child stares drearily, taking a brief hiatus from his work pounding steel with a mallet twice his size. Bourke-White’s work for Life may not be her most introspective, but it’s her most emotional.

Her penchant for symmetry manifests itself in a series of archways and colonnades photographed at an angle with geometric preciseness. It is these shots that may strike people the most. They are aesthetically majestic and singularly Margaret Bourke-White.

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