Margaret Bourke-White in the USSR, 1931

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my personal favorites. Early in her career she was granted access to the rooftop of the Chrysler Building, where another photojournalist captured her image atop one of the metallic eagles jutting out the side. This iconic photographic can be seen below, along with some other early photos she took of various buildings.

Bourke-White On The Chrysler Building

Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904. She became interested in photography while studying at Cornell University. After studying under Clarence White at Columbia University, she opened a studio in Cleveland where she specialized in architectural photography. In 1929 Bourke-White was recruited as staff photographer for Fortune, and made several trips to the Soviet Union. Eyes on Russia, a firsthand account of her experiences in the USSR, was published in 1931.

Her impressions of the USSR in the early 1930s were varied, but generally positive. “When Fortune was in its infancy during the thirties, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia,” Bourke-White later recalled. She dubbed the Soviet Union “the land of the day after tomorrow.” The title was ironic, apparently. For not only did this indicate the country’s futuristic bent; it also hinted at deeply-rooted confusion:

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Le Corbusier, the famous modern architect, likewise noted this experiment in reformatting the work week in his postscript “Moscow Atmosphere” in Precisions (1930). But the title also suggested communism’s headlong dive into the future. Making her way through the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bourke-White also stumbled across Stalin’s closest relations. She photographed the communist leader’s mother, great-aunt, and several others. A few decades later, she recorded a few snippets about their meeting. Aside from Stalin’s family and relatives, Bourke-White also photographed a number of other eminent personages in the Soviet Union: Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, Hugh Cooper, etc. Ten years later she would portray Stalin himself. In addition to these figures, however, she also took many portraits of ordinary people from everyday life in the USSR.

Deeply influenced by her experience of the Great Depression, she became increasingly interested in politics, joining Life in 1936.  Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on its first front cover. In 1937 Bourke-White worked with the best-selling novelist Erskine Caldwell on the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The book was later criticized for supposed “left-wing bias,” upsetting whites in the deep South with its passionate attack on Jim Crow. Bourke-White was a member of the American Artists’ Congress. The group supported state-funding of the arts, fought discrimination against African American artists, and supported artists fighting against fascism in Europe. She also subscribed to the Daily Worker and was a member of several Communist Party front organizations.

Margaret Bourke-White, 92 canvas

Bourke-White married Caldwell in 1939. They were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German Army invaded in 1941. When Bourke-White and Caldwell returned to the United States in 1942, they collaborated to produce another attack on social inequality, Say Is This the USA? During the Second World War, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the US Air Force. Having survived a torpedo attack en route to North Africa, she was with United States troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war Bourke-White continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting Gandhi’s non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. She also captured a grisly photo of a South Korean soldier smiling after decapitating of North Korean communist guerilla. During the Korean Civil War, the US backed the South Korean army and even directly supported it with marines.

The FBI had been collecting information on Bourke-White’s political activities since the 1930s and in the 1950s became a target for Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee. However, a statement reaffirming her belief in democracy and her opposition to dictatorship of the left or of the right, enabled her to avoid being cross-examined by the committee. In 1952 Bourke-White was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unable to take photographs, she spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Margaret Bourke-White died at Darien, Connecticut, in 1971.

Below is posted an excerpt from her autobiography that goes over her first round of visits to Russia in the early 1930s.



Land of the day after tomorrow

Margaret Bourke-White
Portrait of Myself
September 1963


In the early thirties, when Fortune was in its infancy, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia. No foreign photographers had been allowed across Russian borders to take a direct look at what was going on under the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Foreign engineering consultants — mostly Americans — came and went with comparative freedom. But for the professional photographer from the outside world, it was a closed country. Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.

With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me. Peasants who had been taken from the plow and put on the punch press — how did they manage this jump of centuries? Although my approach was nontechnical, I had been in factories enough to appreciate that industry has a history-machines are developed and men grow along with them. Here was a unique opportunity to see a country in transition between a medieval past and an industrialized future.

No one could have known less about Russia politically than I knew — or cared less. To me, politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine. It was only much later that I discovered that politics could be an absorbing subject, with a profound effect on human destiny.

The person most helpful in giving me background on Russia was Cleveland’s live-wire city manager, Dan Morgan. From him I got some conception of the tremendous range of heavy industry being built with the technical assistance of American firms. There was virtually a little Cleveland within Soviet borders. Warner & Swasey and Foote-Burt were tooling up Stalingrad. Two of Cleveland’s leading construction companies, McKee and Austin, built some of the biggest installations in the Soviet Union — from steel mills in Siberia to oil refineries on the Black Sea. Detroit, too, was prominently represented by Ford; Schenectady by General Electric. Ford’s industrial architect, Albert Kahn, was laying out the entire group of factory buildings for Stalingrad, now Volgograd. The Newport News Shipbuilding Company was furnishing what were then the world’s largest hydroturbines for Dnieprostroi, and the huge Dnieper Dam was erected under the experienced direction of Col. Hugh L. Cooper, builder of America’s Muscle Shoals.

These great American builders and their staffs of engineers and planners were not, of course, dangerous Reds, or even fellow travelers. They were not working for ideological or propaganda purposes, but strictly for business reasons or — as the Marxists might have said — “the profit motive.” The role played by American industrialists in building up the Soviet giant cannot be overestimated.

Margaret Bourke-White, American engineer Col. Hugh Cooper, the chief conslultant for the construction of Russia's Dnieper Dam, holdling pipe as he poses before the dam's spillway (1931)

The idea of running photographs of the sprouting industries of the USSR intrigued Fortune’s editors, but they had grave doubts whether I could get anything done. They were sending me to Germany to take pictures of industry, and I decided to push on from there. I had applied for a Russian visa six months earlier at Intourist, the Soviet travel agency in New York. In Berlin, I was puzzled when I discovered my visa was not waiting for me, because the Intourist official had been so enthusiastic about my industrial photographs. “Your pictures will be your passport,” he kept repeating.

Not only was there no visa at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, but the officials there had never heard of my grand plan to chronicle Soviet industry, or of me either. I opened up the ever-present portfolio of my industrial work and was told again my pictures would be my passport. The Embassy officials dismissed me courteously with instructions to return the day after tomorrow. I returned the day after tomorrow and continued to do so for five and a half weeks.

I woke up before dawn one morning and restlessly started walking from the Hotel Adlon past the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden. As I passed under the window of the Soviet Embassy, I heard a whistle over my head. I looked up, and there, at the window, stood the Soviet consul. He was waving a piece of paper. It was the telegram granting my visa. I bought a cheap trunk and filled it with canned food. I had been warned that if I traveled off the beaten path, I would find near famine conditions. That night I left for Moscow.

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Even getting to one of these evaporating appointments was a feat. Taxis were rare and apt to break down on the way. Next choice was a droshky, a carriage so worn it seemed a breath would blow it to pieces. You were at the mercy of the bearded driver who might dump you out halfway to your destination if he thought his horse was tired. The next possibility was to get on a streetcar if you could get the conductor to stop when it was literally dripping with human beings.

I remember a day when my interpreter and I squeezed into one of these bursting streetcars. The conductor held out her hand for our fare: “Ten kopecks.”
……“We do not have change,” said my interpreter. “But here’s a ruble.”
……“But I cannot take the ruble. I cannot take tips. It’s against the law.”
……“What shall we do? We have no kopecks.”
……“Get off the car.” The conductor stopped the car in the middle of the crowded street, and in true Russian fashion, the passengers discussed our dilemma.

While the debate raged, streetcars halted, traffic slowed to a standstill. Finally, the passengers rose unanimously to our support. We could stay on the car. We could keep our ruble. The car started and the blocked traffic rolled into motion again.

With all the absurdities, there was a quality about the people I can only call exasperating charm. On my visits to the various commissars, I was always received hospitably. Inevitably, I was told two things: one was to return the day after tomorrow; the other was that my pictures would be my passport. Yet I was fortunate in having something as tangible as my pictures of American steel mills, factories and refineries to show what I wanted to do photographically in the Soviet Union. I began getting very limited permission to take pictures in and around Moscow. On alternate days, I did what little work I could, and on the Days After Tomorrow, I visited the Commissariats of Heavy Industry and Railroads, pressing for a big tour with proper authority to travel and take pictures. During these visits, scores of admiring Russians crowded in to examine minutely my pictures of American factories, while I slipped in reminders that there were many beautiful pictures to be taken in Soviet factories. I had come for only a few weeks, and already half of my time had trickled uselessly away.

“Yes,” the officials would say. “The Amerikanka is right. The great Lenin said, ‘Time is our most precious possession’.” I don’t know whether it was the counsel of the deceased Lenin that took effect or my persistence, but finally the Day After Tomorrow really came, and I set out to tour the industrial centers with a highly competent young girl interpreter, my trunk of food, my bulky camera cases, a sheaf of permits and, most important, that portfolio of photographs that indeed was to be my passport. The pictures soon became dog-eared and battered, but they opened many doors.

Everywhere I traveled, I heard about the Amerikanskoe tempo. It was the watchword of the hour, the ultimate in praise. In Stalingrad, particularly where the factories were modeled after Ford in Detroit, the workers adored the conveyor belt as a symbol of the Amerikanskoe tempo. The workers who gathered in crowds made suggestions, smoked cigarettes, eulogized the conveyor, broke into oratory at the very sight of it, did everything but run it.

At Dnieprostroi, during the first month, half of the locomotive cranes were busy picking up the other half that had broken down on the job. The workmen were like children playing with new toys. In the power installations, they acted as though throwing on a new generator was like turning on an electric fan. The endless meetings to decide whether or not to use a new tool exasperated the American technicians; tools were hard to get. The tractor was the object of special reverence, but still the tractor operators ran them up and down the fields like racing cars until they broke down.

Machine worship was everywhere; it permeated even the classic Russian ballet. Little girls with gear wheels in gold or silver painted on their chests danced Machine Dances. The people were worshiping at new shrines with the fervor of religious zealots. It was as though they needed to replace their religion — which was being taken away from them step by step. They looked on the coming of the machine as their Savior; it was the instrument of their deliverance.

Anyone who was in Russia during this phase of the industrial program was entitled to the gravest doubts that anything could be made of such a mess. But after one year’s interval, on a return trip to do six illustrated articles for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, I found significant changes.

Margaret Bourke-White, View fr. hillside vantage point of the industrial spawl of Magnitogorsk (1931) Margaret Bourke-White, Couple, standing nr. tractor, looking off into distance, on field being harrowed at Verblud (camel) state collective farm; south of Moscow, nr. Rostov, Russia, USSRMargaret Bourke-White, 125 canvas

The workmen were beginning to operate the machines instead of marveling over them; the conveyor belts moved. There was nothing yet to match our familiar American scene of the production line, with rows of men on each side popping nuts and bolts into place along a steadily moving conveyor. Still there was less oratory, and more tending to business. Tractors were treated less like fiery steeds and more like instruments of agriculture.

Of course, people who want to learn can move mountains. This is true of nations as well as individuals. But with the Russians it was especially dramatic because the goals were so high. The Soviets were still a long way from the Amerikanskoe tempo, but with the piatiletka, the Five-Year Plan, Russia was entering a technological race, with the United States as the principal contender.

“The capitalist world is crumbling” was a convincing slogan if you had never been taught anything else. A great rash of posters broke out illustrating this theme. My favorite poster showed a plump capitalist in a top hat, tumbling through space in the midst of falling bricks from a collapsing skyscraper. I took it home and hung it in my skyscraper studio as a grim warning to my capitalist friends. It bore the slogan: “The Five-Year Plan is driving the coffin nails of world capitalism.”

Great prestige was attached to literacy. In the Ural Mountains, where the Magnitogorsk steel mills were under construction, I saw night classes in reading and writing held in the nearby villages. The pupils were middle-aged peasants; the teachers, high-school girls.

Margaret Bourke-White, Russian toddlers under daycare at nursery in Auto Plant while their mothers work on an assembly line (Ge Margaret Bourke-White, Russian teacher holding book as she presides over a lesson while children carefully read along fr. their copies at desks in classroom at elementary school (Moscow, 1931) Margaret Bourke-White, Russian children sitting in the village school (1931)

It is sad that with the coming of literacy, it was thought necessary to curb freedom of speech and to restrict freedom of ideas. The threat of ruthless force is a sorry platform for a new nation.

On one of my Russian trips, I made a movie — or tried to. Having brought in the first photographs to be made by a non-Soviet citizen, I was ambitious to do the same with a newsreel or travelogue. Movies were my latest passion. I had been experimenting with simple patterns in industry, which I hoped would result in a new kind of educational movie “short. “ Eastman Kodak had plans for an educational department and had shown a good deal of interest in my experiments. They generously gave me free film for this and the work in Russia.

The movies were not very good. Fortunately Eastman Kodak was able to salvage something it could use in its school program. I did all the wrong things: used big cameras, big films, big tripods. I composed each scene with lengthy care and took innumerable static views, forgetting that the important word in motion pictures is motion.

Having concentrated on industry in my earlier trips to the USSR, I decided this time to see the countryside and the peasants who lived on the land. I went south to the mountainous state of Georgia, which was the last of the major republics to come into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and whose people are independent and proud.

The fiery Georgians are large-eyed and handsome, and sing and joke more often than their countrymen to the north. They are often at emotional swords’ points with the sterner northern Russians and consider themselves superior. They are immensely hospitable. In Tiflis, the President of Georgia, Gherman Andreevich Magalablishvili, and his seven commissars helped me arrange my trip and at the last minute decided to go with me. Several of the commissars had studied abroad and spoke French and German. The President was not an admirer of Stalin, although Stalin, too, was a Georgian. I later learned that he was “liquidated” in the notorious purges of 1938.

The President and his party took me on a horseback trip through the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. My equipment was strapped on a couple of horses. When I was shooting, the equipment I needed most seemed always to be strapped to the wrong horse. At night we slept in caves. If we ran short of food, the President ordered the peasants to bring a live sheep. They cut off its head on a stone and roasted the meat over a fire. We ate it in delectable chunks. As we rode through the mountains, we passed little villages where the peasants sat on the roofs of their homes and sang to us. Their favorite song, and mine, was one they have been singing for many years. The words of the chorus are:

Mama, I want to go to America
To bring back an American girl
Who will come and sit beside you.

It was unprecedented for them to have an American girl to sing it to, and this was cause for celebration. At each village, we dismounted and sang the song over the excellent local wine. In the Caucasus Mountains, you drink from a pointed wine horn which must be drained at one draft. Then you tip the final drop out on your thumbnail to prove you have drunk it all. Since I was their guest, they toasted me repeatedly. Each one had to drink only the toast he made, but courtesy demanded that I gulp down a hornful on every toast. This was no small feat since they toasted not only me but my parents and grandparents and cousins and uncles and the husband they hoped I would have.

Margaret Bourke-White, Joseph Stalin's great aunt Dido-Lilo Dzhugashvilii (1931)

By the merest chance, I happened to hear of Stalin’s birthplace. In those days, the Soviets had not yet awakened to the high publicity value of building up their leaders as personages. Interest in family details was discouraged. I dared not appear too anxious. I knew the village of Didi-Lilo would make wonderful travelogue material, and I was sure it was a subject never taken before. The village was a small one, on the slope of a hill, and crammed full of Dzhugashvilis, Stalin’s family name. Later, I was to hear that a bitter rivalry existed between Didi-Lilo and nearby Gori, both claiming to be Stalin’s birthplace.

I was shown the mud hut where my guides told me little Josef, or Zozo, as his mother called him, was born. It was little more than a potato cellar, half underground, with an earth floor and a chink in the roof to let out the smoke. I met the sheriff who, years before, had arrested Stalin’s father, a cobbler, for not paying his taxes. Stalin’s mother had moved to Tiflis, but his great-aunt greeted me. With her bent shoulders and voluminous gray wool scarves wrapped around her head and neck, she looked like some great land turtle about to tuck itself into its shell. While I photographed the village, she prepared a meal of cereal and fat lamb scattered with pomegranate seeds. Stalin’s relatives joined in the feast, the men seated cross-legged with me on the floor, and by Georgian custom, the women relatives standing near and serving.

True to form in the Dzhugashvilis’ village, I was subjected to a drinking bout. Although the great-aunt did not sit with us, she stood and drank with us. At the end of the meal, she proposed a threefold toast: first, to their guest from across the seas; second, to their illustrious relative who had departed to Moscow; and third, to herself, because she was the oldest member of the party and needed the toast the most.

After all the joggling on horseback, my cameras were getting very balky, and by the time I reached Tiflis, where Stalin’s mother was living, I had to coax and wheedle them to work. Ekaterina Dzhugashvili lived in a palace. The great rambling building in the middle of a garden was largely taken up by offices, but the old lady was given an apartment of two small rooms on the ground floor. The apartment was curtained in lace; there were antimacassars on the chairs, and small lace pillows were piled neatly on the bed. The walls were covered with pictures of Stalin, photographs and cartoons. Stalin’s mother had never quite understood what her son’s job was. She had wanted him to become a priest and had sent him to study with the Jesuits. She was deeply hurt when he broke away to join the revolutionary movement, and began robbing post offices to further his revolutionary work.

Margaret Bourke-White, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, the mother of Russian leader Joseph Stalin, seated on park bench (1931)

Stalin’s mother was bewildered at being photographed and insisted on changing her clothes. She got into a long black dress and scarf, typical Georgian women’s attire, black robe and bonnet edged with white lace. Where had I come from? She had heard of America, but she didn’t know where it was. We went out into the garden in the fading light, and I tried to photograph her coming down a long flight of steps. There was scarcely a ray of daylight left. And as I cranked away while she did her little sequence, my movie camera leaped open and coils of Stalin’s mother came out on the ground. I barely managed an abbreviated retake before sundown. When I reached Berlin, on my way home, transatlantic phone calls started coming from New York. A transatlantic call was a great rarity in those days. The first call was from Fox-Movietone, offering to buy my film “sight unseen.” This was followed by similar offers from other film companies. I should have placed it then and there, while the excitement was running high. But no, I was a perfectionist. I was going to supervise the cutting and editing of the film myself; then I would see about marketing it.

After I arrived home, executives of all the major companies phoned me frequently to find out when I would be ready to show my film. After a while just their secretaries phoned me. Finally, there were no more calls. The news interest had faded. I was left with my films and my bills. I had been hiring expensive help, professional film cutters and editors, each one supposed to be that “wonder boy” who could give a touch of greatness to any film footage. I could afford it no longer. I put the films back in their round tin-boxes and decided to write them off as a loss.

Then, the wheels of history turned. The US recognized the USSR. There was a sudden wave of interest in Russia. The motion-picture companies began calling again. When a subsidiary of RKO made an offer, I jumped at it without delay. The film was made into two shorts called Eyes on Russia and Red Republic. My movie fever had burned itself out. I have never touched a motion picture camera from that day to this.

Several years afterward, a newspaperman who is a friend of mine was traveling in the interior of Brazil. He walked into a tiny movie theater, and on the screen was my Russian film. He told me that the film had been broken and spliced so often, and the movements were so jerky, that he expected to see Stalin’s great-aunt shinny up a tree and have a custard pie thrown down her décolletage.

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