This Exhibition Has Ended

January 24, 2015
June 7, 2015
In the Moak, Class of 1953, and Schaenen Galleries

Before she became a world-famous photographer for Time Life, Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) graduated from Cornell in 1927. While on campus, she used an ICA Reflex camera, a gift from her mother, to capture university buildings in sunlight or shadow or snow. “It was the beauty of Cornell and of its environs,” she said in 1933, “that was the deciding factor in [my] choice of photography as a life work.” Over the next thirty years, she enjoyed returning to campus regularly to lecture and show her new work.

This exhibition provides the unusual opportunity to view the entire span of Bourke-White’s remarkable career, from the campus views she sold both to classmates and to Cornell publications, through her work in architectural and industrial photography, to the images she made as a photojournalist in the United States and overseas. Bourke-White brought to her work a polished, formal sense of composition, an intuitive understanding of the elements in a successful photo-essay, and a deeply humanitarian sensibility—combined with her own recognition that she was recording history as it happened.

In 1936, Bourke-White’s photographs of Fort Peck Dam and the nearby boomtown of Wheeler, Montana, were the cover image and lead story for the first issue of LIFE Magazine. This was only one of many “firsts” she accomplished during a remarkable run: she was the first photographer hired by Henry Luce for Fortune magazine (1929); the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union (1930); and the first woman photographer for Luce’s new venture, LIFE (1936). During World War II, she was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to receive permission to work in combat zones. 

In 1972, shortly after her death, Cornell’s Andrew Dickson White Museum hosted the first comprehensive exhibition of Bourke-White’s photography. The works on view then were not vintage prints, but instead were made in 1965 from Bourke-White’s negatives with her oversight and permission. The present show incorporates a combination of vintage prints—the first prints made from a negative—and those printed in 1965 and presented to the University as a gift from Bourke-White and LIFE. It is fitting that Cornell, on its Sesquicentennial, should pay tribute to the career of an exceptional pioneer of photojournalism.

This exhibition was curated by Stephanie Wiles, the Richard J. Schwartz Director of the Johnson Museum, and supported in part by the Helen and Robert J. Appel Exhibition Endowment.



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