Bourke-White at Columbia

A striking self-portrait of Margaret Bourke-White welcomes visitors to the Met’s latest photography exhibition “The New Woman Behind the Camera.” Before she became a renowned photojournalist, Bourke-White was a student at Columbia, who took her first photography class with Clarence H. White in 1922.

The tower of Russell Hall, Teachers College, 1931. Scan #4498. Margaret Bourke-White photographs, University Archives.

Margaret Bourke-White enrolled at School of Practical Arts, Teachers College in 1921. In her autobiography “Portrait of Myself”(1963), she wrote that “by lucky chance,” she took a two-hours-a-week course in photography with Clarence H. White. She claims that she took the class not because she wanted to take photographs but because the course dealt with design and composition as applied to photography. She admits that “one doesn’t learn much about photography in two hours a week,” but Clarence White “was a great teacher and the seed was planted.” (29) After a year at Columbia, Bourke-White took courses at Rutgers, transferred to the University of Michigan, later took courses at Purdue and Case Western, and ultimately received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1927.

In 1929 Bourke-White became an associate editor and staff photographer of Fortune magazine and, a year later, she became the first Western photographer allowed to enter the Soviet Union. In 1931 the highly-regarded photojournalist returned to Columbia. She was commissioned by the Columbia University Press to photograph the Morningside campus. Prints were, according to the brochure, “appropriately mounted on the finest material, 14.25 by 21 inches, ready for framing. Individually signed by Miss Bourke-White, they will be made on order, and shipped within two weeks from receipt of orders.” The cost of each photograph was five dollars. Prints from this collection can be found in the Margaret Bourke-White photographs at the University Archives.

Along with the works of other “new women” photographers from the 1920s to the 1950s, the Met exhibition also includes Bourke-White’s photograph of the Fort Peck Dam, the cover of the first issue of LIFE magazine in November 1936. The exhibition is open through October 3, 2021.

School of Mines, 1931. Scan #3235. Margaret Bourke-White photographs, University Archives.