Margaret Bourke-White was one of the twentieth century’s best known photojournalists.1 In a field heavily dominated by men, she forged her own path to fame and professional success. Published in America's magazines, her photographs reached millions of readers, helping to earn her a lasting international reputation. She traveled across the world, taking striking images of political leaders, global crises, and war.
Bourke-White's break into the field of photojournalism came in 1929, when her images of the Cleveland skyline caught the eye of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce. Bourke-White’s photographs soon became a standard feature in other publications run by Luce, including Fortune and Life magazine.2 Given its novelty and the dramatic quality of its images, Life surged in popularity—going from 300,000 copies to over a million in less than a year. By 1945, when World War II ended, the magazine reached a circulation of 4.5 million copies per week.
Although Bourke-White had previously shown far more interest in photographing factories and smoke stacks, she began in her photographs for Life to focus more on people as her subjects.3 As a war correspondent, she worked to document pain, death, and dying close up in the United Kingdom, the Balkans, the Soviet Union and North Africa. However, none of these experiences prepared her for what she saw in the liberated Nazi concentration camps.
The featured image, taken by a US army officer, depicts Bourke-White in April 1945 at the Buchenwald camp, shortly after liberation by US troops. She crouches near a wagon piled with corpses, holding what appears to be a light meter, as she sets up the framing for a photograph. While shooting for Life's coverage of Buchenwald, she faced firsthand the horrors of the camp: the overpowering smell of death, mass starvation, and specimens of tattooed skin removed from prisoners. She later remarked in her memoirs that "using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me."4
Although Life published only a few of her photographs from Buchenwald in May 1945,5 the others came to light years later. In reflecting on her photographs of such scenes, Bourke-White pointed out that photojournalists had to build up psychological self-defense mechanisms to deal with such horror:
...I have to work with a veil over my mind. In photographing the murder camps, the protective veil was so tightly drawn that I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw the prints of my own photographs. It was though I was seeing these horrors for the first time. I believe that many correspondents worked in the same self-imposed stupor. One has to, or it is impossible to stand it... Difficult as these things may be to report or to photograph, it is something we war correspondents must do. We are in a privileged and sometimes unhappy position. We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.6