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Bourke-White's 'Photography Of Design'

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the most famous photojournalists of the 20th century. A Bourke-White picture made the cover of the very first issue of Life magazine. She was one of four staff photographers on the first masthead, the only woman on staff, and invented the photo essay for the magazine. NPR's Susan Stamberg reports on an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., that focuses on Bourke-White's earliest works, before Life.

"Margaret Bourke-White hung out of bombers to take pictures, climbed out on a gargoyle high atop the Chrysler Building to take pictures, was the first Western photographer to go to the Soviet Union, covered the dangerous days of India's partition," Stamberg says.

Biographer Vicki Goldberg says Bourke-White was fearless from the beginning. When Bourke-White went into Cleveland's steel mills in the 1920s, she would get so close to the pouring metal that her face would turn sunburn-red and her camera finish would blister, Goldberg says.

The Phillips Collection show -- Margaret Bourke-White, The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 -- is a salute, in 140 black-and-white images, to the might of American industry. She began as a commercial photographer, documenting the achievements of corporations. Curator Stephen Bennett Phillips says Bourke-White's work reflected the importance of industry to the capitalist society of America.

As Stamberg reports, "Margaret Bourke-White was in love with the shapes of industrial design -- the mechanical muscle and sheen of it. She took extreme close-ups of the inner workings of production."

In one example, 1930's Industrial Cable, Bourke-White zeros in on a "beautiful fabric" of metal wires woven like braids of gold yarn, Phillips says. He says the major achievement of her early photographs was that she was able to show the moguls of industry the hidden beauty in the worlds they dominated.

The exhibit remains at the Phillips Collection through May 11. Then it travels to Charlotte, N.C., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Portland, Maine.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.