September 2007 Issue
Eye on Cleveland
Legendary photographer Margaret Bourke-White is in focus at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
For Margaret Bourke-White, it was love at first sight. Arriving in Cleveland by boat from New York in 1927, the budding photographer was mesmerized by what lay before her.
"I stood on the deck to watch the city come into view," she once recalled. "As the skyline took form in the morning mist, I felt I was coming to my promised land ... columns of machinery gaining height as we drew toward the pier, derricks swinging like living creatures.
"Deep inside I knew these were my subjects."
During that year, as aviator Charles Lindbergh made headlines around the world for his nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, Bourke-White scaled new heights of her own. Boldly perched on ledges high above the city, the 23-year-old snapped shot after shot of Cleveland's new Terminal Tower, a symbol of the thoroughly modern metropolis below. At Otis Steel, she focused on the beauty that could be found among the blast furnaces, oblivious to the sparks and scorching heat that burned her face and singed her camera.
Through September 16, the Cleveland Museum of Art spotlights "Icons of American Photography: A Century of Photographs" from its collection. Spanning 1850 to 1960, the exhibit features 120 images from premier masters of the craft. One focal point of the show is also one of Bourke-White's most arresting photographs: Terminal Tower, Cleveland, 1928, in which the complex is wreathed in fog and smoke from the industrial Flats below.
"Margaret Bourke-White put a new face on American industry. She took a romantic look at it and discovered the aesthetic beauty within it," explains Tom Hinson, curator of photography at the museum. "And it didn't matter how difficult it was to get the shot. She'd go to any length to achieve it –– from bullying her way into a factory to putting herself in harm's way."
Born in the Bronx in 1904, Bourke-White idolized her father, an inventor, engineer and amateur photographer. He introduced her to the world of machinery and took her on tours of nearby plants, instilling an appreciation for their beauty, which he equated to that of nature. Before moving to Cleveland with her welder husband, Bourke-White honed her photography skills at Columbia University in a class taught by pictorialist Clarence H. White. She blossomed under his tutelage, becoming enthralled with her teacher's dramatic use of light, which made his photos appear to glow.
Bourke-White's early work, says Hinson, mirrors what she learned, offering a stark contrast between light and dark. "There's also a strong design sense in the composition," he says, "an insistence on using diagonal or curving lines to make repeated abstract patterns."
Those ingredients became the hallmarks of her work, as evidenced in her images of a seductive curve in the Cleveland Trust bank stairwell and the dazzling sheen radiating from a lock on a National City Bank vault.
Bourke-White moved to New York in 1930, finding fame by working for Fortune and Life magazines; collaborating with her second husband, author Erskine Caldwell, on a book documenting the effects of the Great Depression in the South; and serving as the first accredited female war correspondent during World War II. She lost her long battle with Parkinson's disease in 1971 at age 67.
Her Cleveland work clearly has withstood the test of time, says Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator of The Phillips Collection of modern art in Washington, D.C., and author of a catalog chronicling Bourke-White's work from 1927 to 1936.
"People still rightfully think of the industrial world as being sort of gritty and polluted," he says. "Who would ever think that a series of multiple bolts would make a beautiful form?"
Cleveland Museum of Art. 11150 East. Blvd., Cleveland
Tues., Thur., Sat. and Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Wed. and Friday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Free, but tickets are required. For more information, call 888/CMA-0033 or visit www.clevelandart.org