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Margaret Bourke-White Papers

An inventory of her papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: SEH
Date: Nov 1991

Biographical History

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was an American photographer, war correspondent, author and photojournalist. Among her many achievements, she was the first foreign photographer allowed to take pictures in the USSR of Soviet industry, the first female war correspondent, and the first female photographer for Life magazine, where her work appeared on the cover of the magazine's first issue. She was the author of more than ten books, including her autobiography Portrait of Myself (1963). She received numerous awards over her career, including honorary doctorates from Rutgers University and the University of Michigan, and in 1997 she was designated a Women's History Month honoree by the National Women's History Project.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

Note: Large portions of this collection (Photographs - Personal and Photographs - Professional) are currently CLOSED for conservation.

The Margaret Bourke-White Papers, spanning 1863 through 1984, comprise biographical material, correspondence, photographs (prints, negatives, color transparencies, slides, etc.), writings, and memorabilia of the American industrial photographer, photojournalist, war correspondent and author (1904-1971). The collection not only reflects her personal life, but also illuminates the chaotic historical times (life in the United States during the Depression; World War II Africa, Germany, Italy and Russia; the partition of India; Korea's guerilla war) Bourke-White chronicled as a photographer for Henry Luce's Time, Inc. (first for Fortune (1930-1936) and then, from its inaugural issue in 1936, Life).

Biographical material contains autobiographical documents including data Bourke-White supplied for biographical reference books, chronologically arranged biographical items, and awards. Biographical materials include a birth certificate, marriage and divorce papers from the 1920s, a 1919 character analysis, mementos from her youth, and her mother's notes on Bourke-White's childhood. Also included here is a complete list of all Bourke-White's Life magazine assignments, compiled by Special Collections staff for reference purposes.

Correspondence-subject files are subdivided into Family and General. Arranged chronologically, Family correspondence begins with letters dated 1863 of Bourke-White's maternal grandparents, Joseph and "Bella" Bourke, and also includes those of parents Minnie and Joseph White, sister Ruth, brother Roger, and several other aunts, uncles, and cousins. General correspondence-subject files follow, arranged alphabetically, and extend to Bourke-White's death in 1971. Through the mid-1950s, correspondence of most depth and duration includes that of advertising agency Meldrum & Fewsmith, Inc., friend M. Jerry Papurt, publishers Simon & Schuster, secretary Margaret Smith, and Time, Inc. Reflecting the scope of her influence and career, Bourke-White's correspondence includes that of artists (Boris Artzybasheff, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O'Keeffe, Lee Simonson, John Vassos, Gluyas Williams); authors (Sherwood Anderson, Pearl Buck, Stanley Burnshaw, Norman Cousins, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Freeman, John Gunther, Lillian Hellman, Maurice G. Hindus, Joseph North, Robb Sagendorff, Stefansson Vilhjalmur); entertainers (Pablo Casals, Maurice Chevalier, Burl Ives, Andre Kostelanetz, Alexander (Abrasha) Schneider); industrial clients (Aluminum Company of America, American Iron and Steel Institute, Atlantic Refining Company, Bethlehem Steel Company, Congoleum-Nairn Corporation, Flintkote Company, Ford Motor Company, Gulf Oil Corporation, International Harvester Company, International Paper Company, Lehigh Portland Cement Company, National Engraving Company, Otis Steel Company, Oxford Paper Company, Swift and Company); journalists (Robert Cromie, Irv Kupcinet, Frank Moraes, Edward R. Murrow, Robert L. Sherrod, John Cameron Swayze, Lowell Thomas, Dorothy Thompson, Louis Wiley); photographers (Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Yousef Karsh, Dorthea Lange, Jackie Martin, Edward Steichen, Ralph Steiner, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston); and politicians/world leaders (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hubert H. Humphrey, Jacob Javits, John Lindsay, Clare Boothe Luce, Jawaharlal Nehru, Richard Nixon, Franklin D. Roosevelt).

Glass plate negatives contains about one hundred glass plates, almost all black and white, apparently a mix of personal and professional photographs. A few may be related to her Nature (NAT) series. Many were taken at college campuses.

An inventory of Interpositives is in process.

Memorabilia consists of financial and legal material, photographic equipment, printed material, scrapbooks, and miscellany. Financial material is predominantly banking records and Bourke-White Studios (1928-1941) business. Legal memorabilia comprises various insurance policies, contracts, wills and studio releases. Photographic equipment and artifacts are listed and described separately below.

Printed material consists of books; chronologically arranged clippings about Bourke-White, followed by those arranged by subject relating to India, Life, PM, and the Soviet Union (Boxes 88-97); and various issues of periodicals (Boxes 98-101) arranged by title, with the exception of Trade Winds which is out of sequence in deference to its extent and role in Bourke-White's early career. Scrapbooks (9) contain a variety of clippings about Bourke-White. Miscellany consists of mementos (memberships and identifications, theater programs, stenographers' notebooks, photography studio plans, war bonds posters); items about Bourke-White (books, films, a 1984 video, her war record which she gathered as a defense to anti-American accusations); and items from other people (writings by others, including the diary of her physical therapist, music, and a pencil portrait).

Photographic equipment consists of Bourke-White's cameras, camera cases, accessories, and other tools of her trade. Reflecting both technological growth and the rigorous demands Bourke-White placed upon her equipment (and herself), these range from a simple pocket box camera to a large camera specifically designed for aerial photography, and also include a wooden view camera, 35mm cameras, and optically complex German lenses. Some are in near-perfect condition; other show the effects of hard use, include mold, rust and physical damage.

Photographs (personal) consist of photographs of family, friends, animals, landscapes, etc. There are a number of candid photographs of Bourke-White herself, alone and with others, some taken while she was on location for various jobs. The items are a mixture of color and various types of black and white prints, and a few negatives. Some items have accompanying letters, captions, notes, etc. A more detailed description of these folders is available in Excel form.

Photographs (professional) consist of photographs taken by Bourke-White for clients, both corporate (airlines, factories, magazines, railroads, steel mills, universities, etc.) and individual. The vast majority are black-and-white prints and contact prints, with a few color items. Material is listed at the folder level with the number of items (which may be prints, contact prints, or caption lists) given in parentheses. A complete item-level inventory is also available in Excel format. The series is subdivided as follows.

Independent jobs - Corporate clients of note in this subseries include Fortune Magazine, Goodyear, National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Pan American Airways (Pan Am), and Transworld Airlines (TWA). Individual clients include portraits (Patrick Clyne, Sergei Eisenstein, Mrs. Fitelson and baby) as well as estates and gardens (H. W. Albers, Dr. Charles Briggs, Leonard Hanna).
LIFE magazine jobs - Bourke-White was sent on numerous photographic assignments for LIFE magazine over the course of her career (the very first issue of the magazine bore one of her photographs on the cover). Groups of material in this subseries are arranged in order by LIFE job number. Assignments included companies/organizations (Grumman Aircraft, Strategic Air Command, American Jesuits), places (Mt. Wilson observatory, Jersey City, Wenner Gren Land, Syria, Russia, North Africa), individuals (James Farley, Cordell Hull), and topics (food, Hollywood sets, London blackout, America from a helicopter). Not all of Bourke-White's Life assignments are represented in the collection; a complete list of Life jobs, compiled by Special Collections Research Center staff, may be found in box 1 of the collection under Biographical material.
Book-related - Bourke-White published several books, alone and with her husband Erskine Caldwell. Books represented in this subseries include North of the Danube, Say Is This the U.S.A.?, They Called It Purple Heart Valley, and You Have Seen Their Faces. Some of these grew out of assignments for LIFE; the LIFE job number is given in parentheses, if appropriate.
India - LIFE magazine sent Bourke-White on assignment to India several times between 1946 and 1951. Rather than filing these by separate job number in the LIFE section, they are grouped here, with additional India photographs which may or may not be related to LIFE jobs.
Korea - Here will be found a small number of photographs of Korea taken on assignment for LIFE magazine
Russia (I), early 1930s - as with the Korea photographs, the job number and client for these are unknown. Subjects include Stalin's mother and great aunt, a ballet school, rolling mills, and cities such as Magnetogorsk and Novorossisk.
Russia (II), 1940s - Many of these are related to Bourke-White's book Shooting the Russian War. A few are stamped with Life job numbers.
South Africa - These were likely taken on assignment for LIFE. This subseries includes some color material.
World War II - Perhaps best-known of Bourke-White's photographs are those taken on assignment for LIFE during World War II. Subjects include Allied troops and installations (U.S. Bomber Command in England, WACS in North Africa, French divisions in North Africa, air artillery in Italy, 5th Army at Christmas), individuals (Dwight D. Eisenhower, General T. Roosevelt, the Italian royal family, suicides in Leipzig, the Krupp family), and Buchenwald concentration camp.
Miscellaneous / unidentified jobs - This subseries contains a mix of color transparencies and black-and-white prints and contact prints; subjects include Masons, highways, Carnegie Art Museum, Antigua, Mayan pyramids, and some candid shots of Bourke-White and friends.
Miscellaneous / unidentified portraits - This subseries consists of photographs of various individuals, including Alfred Eisenstaedt, Saul and Hede Steinburg, and the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina. There are also a few of Bourke-White and her husband Erskine Caldwell. All items in this subseries are color transparencies.

Recordings consists of audiotapes (reel to reel tapes and audiocassettes), dictation discs, moving image recordings (VHS, U-matic, and 16mm, including a home movie of Bourke-White's goddaughter Wendy Waldroup), and phonodiscs (most 78rpm). The contents include speeches, radio interviews, and speech therapy recordings made after Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Writings includes handwritten and typescript manuscripts and published versions of articles, books, interviews, and lectures, as well as notes and miscellany. Writings are arranged alphabetically by title within each category and by beginning sentence or interviewing agency when titles are not supplied. Author and/or co-author of ten books relating to her photojournalistic experiences, the collection contains typescripts for Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (a "candid picture" of a defeated Germany, people and country); Eyes on Russia ("personal impressions" of the Soviet Union and of the "new industry ... being built under the Five Year Plan" during the summer of 1930); Halfway to Freedom (a chronicle of the fight for India's independence and the resulting formation of Pakistan); Shooting the Russian War (documentation of the scenes relating to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941); and They Called It "Purple Heart Valley" (observations of the World War II Italian war theater, primarily Cassino Valley).

Also included here are drafts and typescripts of Bourke-White's autobiography and last published work, Portrait of Myself, in which she wrote of her struggle with the Parkinson's Disease which was later to claim her life, the topic also of a photojournalistic article in Life. (For the Bourke-White book titles which are available in the Library, check the rare book card catalog and the online catalog system.) Reference notes (Boxes 67-71) are arranged by subject for various writing projects and include those Bourke-White assembled while on various photography assignments and as a World War II war correspondent, as well as the notebooks she kept in Japan and Korea. Miscellany contains the manuscript for an unpublished book, juvenilia, film notes and reviews.

Arrangement of the Collection

Biographical material, correspondence-subject files, and memorabilia are arranged alphabetically by name or topic. Glass plate negatives, photographic equipment, and photographs (personal) are in no particular order. Photographs (professional) are subdivided as described above, into independent jobs, Life magazine jobs, photographs related to MBW's books, India, Russia, South Africa, and World War II. Recordings are subdivided by type; within that, they are in no particular order except for the phonodiscs, which are arranged alphabetically by title or assigned title. Writings are arranged alphabetically by type and within that by title.

Audio and moving image items in the collection have been transferred to digital formats.


Access Restrictions:

Large portions of this collection (Photographs - Personal and Professional) are currently CLOSED for conservation.

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Access to recordings requires advance notice for production of a use copy.

Use Restrictions:

Researchers are not allowed to take photographic images of Margaret Bourke-White photo prints without copyright holder's permission. Contact Public Services Librarian for more information.

Related Material

See also the papers of Bourke-White's husband, author Erskine Caldwell.

Subject Headings


Bourke-White, Margaret, 1904-1971.

Corporate Bodies

Time, inc.


Advertising -- Photographers.
Advertising photography.
Aerial photography.
Commercial photography.
Documentary photography.
India-Pakistan Conflict, 1947-1949 -- Photography.
Korean War, 1950-1953 -- Photography.
Photographers -- United States -- 20th century.
Photographers -- United States -- Biography.
Photography -- Equipment and supplies.
Photography, Artistic.
Photography, Industrial.
Photography, Military.
Photojournalists -- United States -- 20th century.
War correspondents -- 20th century.
War photography.
Women photographers.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Italy -- Pictorial works.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Journalists.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Photography.


India -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
Pakistan -- History -- Pictorial works.
Southern States -- Social conditions -- Pictorial works.
Soviet Union -- Pictorial works.
United States -- Social conditions -- Pictorial works.

Genres and Forms

16mm (photographic film size)
Black-and-white photographs.
Clippings (information artifacts)
Color film (film)
Documentary photographs.
Glass plate negatives.
Manuscripts for publication.
Negatives (photographs)
News photographs.
Slides (photographs)
Sound recordings.


War correspondents.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Margaret Bourke-White Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Majority of collection, gift of Roger B. White, 1972.

Additional items, gifts of White and others, 1973-2008.

Table of Contents

Biographical material

Correspondence-subject files

Glass plates


Photographic equipment

Photographs (personal)

Photographs (professional)