- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

Legendary photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was at the height of the early part of her career in 1934 when, like so many at the time, she had money problems. The Depression had a way of clarifying life's priorities, and Miss Bourke-White's were clear: Hard up though she was, she simply had to have an apartment with a balcony for her pet alligators.
After graduating from Cornell University in 1927 with a degree in biology and the ambition to be a herpetologist studying reptiles and amphibians the young woman found she could make money in photography.
Ambitious, entrepreneurial and glamorous, she marched insolently and fearlessly into a male-dominated profession to become not only a famous photographer, but a celebrity as well.
Trained in modernist compositional techniques at New York's Columbia University, she found unlikely beauty and an income in America's forbidding industrial zones. The photographer first romanticized the machine age in shots of Cleveland's warehouses and factories.
Her dramatic imaging of the Otis Steel Mill, at a time when women just didn't go into steel mills, caught the eye of Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine. He made her the star photographer of his then-new Fortune magazine, but by 1933, Fortune had to cut its fee scale, and her revenue from the magazine fell off, as did her income from advertisers that also used her work.
She recovered with the assignments for Life that would establish her reputation groundbreaking trips to the Soviet Union and as an intrepid World II photographer.
Little of her earlier machine-age art had been exhibited recently, until Phillips Collection curator Stephen Bennett Phillips organized the intriguing exhibit "Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936," now on view.
The photographer was born in New York City in 1904 and raised in Bound Brook, N.J., by parents who encouraged her to become her own person. Her father, Joseph White, was an engineer and inventor. He also was an enthusiastic amateur photographer who developed his prints in the bathtub and hung them around the house.
When her father took her inside the foundry of the printing-press manufacturer that employed him, 8-year-old Margaret's fascination with the industrial world began.
Miss Bourke-White's mother, Minnie White, studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She fostered curiosity and fearlessness in her children and encouraged Margaret's interest in insects and snakes an interest that might require some encouragement in young girls.
Among Miss Bourke-White's greatest influences was Arthur Wesley Dow, who published his book "Composition" in 1899 and also influenced Georgia O'Keeffe in her early work. A devout believer in the tenets of Asian aesthetics, he valued two-dimensional rhythms and harmony above three-dimensional modeling.
Dow thought that line, lights and darks, and color constituted true artistic expression. The exhibit's "Oliver Chilled Plow: Plow Blades (1930) by Bourke-White," a close-up of shiny steel surfaces that verges on abstraction, echoes Dow's promulgation of rhythmic lines and alternating blacks and whites.
Another important influence was Clarence H. White, her photography teacher at Columbia University. "Plow Blades" and "Terminal Tower: Cleveland View From Grillwork" (1928) use White's intense cross lighting to define compositions of opposing lines and transition points. Earlier, White had given his students the photographic assignment of finding an aesthetic composition in the grillwork of a gate.
Margaret Bourke-White broke new ground for both women and photography. If all you know is her photojournalism, a visit to the Phillips would be worthwhile for a rare look at the early work of the young aesthete who found unlikely beauty in factories and alligators.

WHAT: "Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936"
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday, through May 11
TICKETS: $7.50 adults, $4 seniors and students, free for members and children younger than 18. Tickets can be purchased at the Phillips and through TicketMaster, 202/432-SEAT.
PHONE: 202/387-2151

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