September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

by Vicki Goldberg

Success was not enough. Bourke-White wanted fame, too, and her single-minded pursuit of both is chronicled with straightforward detail in this candid biography. Bourke-White, who had worked for FORTUNE and was one of the original four staff photographers on LIFE (she shot that magazine’s first cover in 1936), was brought up to be special. Her father, a Jewish engineer, was an amateur photographer. Her mother, a strong-willed woman of Irish ancestry, believed in education, and Margaret was pushed, pulled, encouraged and manipulated to perform at peak. The pressures at one point in her teens caused a kind of breakdown. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she met Everett Chapman, and they married on her 20th birthday. Her husband, too, was highly emotional, with a mother who would not give him up. Bourke-White had started making and selling photo postcards while she was a teenage camp counselor, and she worked as a photographer to pay part of her college costs. When her marriage ended two years later, she set out on her career in earnest. She thought of her work as art. “She sought an enduring image of grandeur and an impression of monumentality, not a glimpse of the fleeting and awkward life of every day,” the author explains, and Bourke-White’s vision was much in tune with her times. She saw the Depression’s ravages firsthand while on assignment for LIFE, and trips to Russia stirred her interest in social and political causes. Many of her friends and lovers were left-wing (she had an affair with novelist Erskine Caldwell, among others). Achieving the success she did in a man’s world was tough. Once, a male news photographer pushed her off a yacht into the water because she stepped in front of him to get the same angle he was shooting. Another time, a newsman kicked her on the shin and caused her to cry because, while covering a story, she pushed in front of him on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She used both sex and tears—storms of rage—to get what she wanted. She covered World War II, and she visited India to take a carefully staged picture of Gandhi (Candice Bergen portrayed her in the movie Gandhi). What comes through in this well-balanced biography is Bourke-White’s energy. She was a driven woman. Before she died, in 1971, she was crippled by Parkinson’s disease but made Time Inc. founder Henry Luce promise her the assignment for the first trip to the moon. Goldberg concludes that there will never be another woman like Bourke-White: “The terms of stardom have changed, for the still photographer no longer rules the world… She was one of a kind, and we should not expect that history will provide the context for another.” (Harper & Row, $25.95)

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