She was vivacious, articulate, and, by virtually all accounts, very charming. But most of all, she was fully dedicated to her work and married to her cameras. No assignment was too slight for her.
For 40 years, Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was one of America’s best-known photojournalists. Her prudence, instinct, and artistry encapsulate many of the most momentous dealings of the 20th century. Bourke-White chronicled the arrival of the American industrial revolution, traveled overseas during WWII on assignment for both LIFE magazine and the U.S. Army Air Force, and covered the Korean War; her portraits of Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and George S. Patton put faces to a distant war. Among her classic images is her portrait of Gandhi, for she was the last journalist to interview him.
Born June 14, 1904 in New York City, Margaret White was the daughter of an engineer-designer in the printing industry. She began her career in 1927 as an industrial-architectural photographer, and she soon gained standing for original industrial camera work that led publisher Henry Luce to engage her in 1929 as Fortune magazine’s first photographer and later as a member of LIFE’S original staff.
Fortune endowed Bourke-White’s photography with national exposure and gave her a chance to cover a wide variety of industries and to travel more extensively. From 1928 to 1936 Bourke-White’s livelihood mostly depended, according to one biographer, on her photographing the procedures and products of a wide variety of industries: “pigs, watches, oil, salt, coal, steel, limestone quarries, natural gas, automobiles, railroads, fish, sweat shops, paper mills, power, and skyscrapers, to name a few.” By 1929 her personal gross income was over $20,000.
To be on LIFE’s first staff, she signed a contract that required her to work exclusively for Time Inc. as of October 1, 1936, at a salary of $12,000 a year, which included two months’ leave each year with pay. Bourke-White had been dispatched to the Northwest to take pictures of the multimillion-dollar projects of the Columbia River Basin. What the editors expected were “construction pictures;” what the editors received was a human register of American frontier life which, in the words of one of them at least, “was a revelation.”
One of her characteristically immense “construction pictures” of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam served as the cover image for that November 23, 1936 issue (the Dam opened in 1940). At 21,026 feet in length, Fort Peck Dam was—and today still remains—the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States.
In her 1963 autobiography, Portrait of Myself, Bourke-White herself effusively recollected the experience working for LIFE on the introductory publication:
“A few weeks before the beginning, Harry Luce called me up to his office and assigned me to a wonderful story out in the Northwest. Luce was very active editorially in the early days of the magazine, and there was always that extra spark in the air. Harry’s idea was to photograph the enormous chain of dams in the Columbia River basin that was part of the New Deal program. I was to stop off at New Deal, a settlement near Billings, Montana, where I would photograph the construction of Fort Peck, the world’s largest earth-filled dam. Harry told me to watch out for something on a grand scale that might make a cover.
“Hurry back, Maggie,” he said, and off I went. I had never seen a place quite like the town of New Deal, the construction site of Fort Peck Dam. It was a pinpoint in the long, lonely stretches of northern Montana so primitive and so wild that the whole ramshackle town seemed to carry the flavor of the boisterous Gold Rush days. It was stuffed to the seams with construction men, engineers, welders, quack doctors, barmaids, fancy ladies and, as one of my photographs illustrated, the only idle bedsprings in New Deal were the broken ones. People lived in trailers, huts, coops anything they could find and at night they hung over the Bar X bar.”
The pictures for the cover story on Fort Peck did not arrive until a few days before the deadline. Archibald MacLeish, a Fortune writer destined to earn fame as poet and playwright, wrote the captions. Luce personally fixed upon the cover choice. Over the years successive editors added features and their own aesthetics, but the main elements of the first issue remained at the core of what the staff affectionately referred to as “Big Red.” The lead story that resulted has been called the first picture essay. The headline of the story which begins on page eight reads, “10,000 Montana Relief Workers Make Whoopee On Saturday Night.”
Work on the issue began in the fall of 1936. Circulation was guaranteed at 250,000, and ad rates were set accordingly: $1,500 for a full black-and-white page, $2,250 for color. On Thursday, November 19, the issue hit the newsstands, and all 466,000 copies sold out within four hours. The people of Fort Peck, according to one of Bourke-White’s biographer, “were dismayed to find that of the 17 photos that ran with the story in the first issue of LIFE, eight were taken inside ramshackle saloons.”
In addition to the first LIFE cover, Margaret Bourke-White is also recognized as having been the first female documentary photographer to be accredited by and work with the U.S armed forces. After 1957, she became too ill to perform a professional job with a camera and she died from Parkinson’s disease on August 27, 1971, in Stamford, Connecticut.
Margaret Bourke-White tried to help the world by, in her own words, “building up the pictorial files of history for the world to see.” Indeed, her commitment represents a stirring testimony to the quality of life through four decades of modern history.
Throughout the years, LIFE.com republished the whole Fort Peck Dam feature, along with a number of Bourke-White photos that did not materialize in the inaugural cover story. At over 250 feet in height, Fort Peck Dam, is still, even now, the highest of all the major dams along the extensive Missouri River.