Section: Arts

Archives gem Bourke-White revisited in new context

Archives gem Bourke-White revisited in new context

by Bailey Blaker

Margaret Bourke-White, the lauded Depression-era American photographer, began her career 109 miles away from Gambier, in Cleveland. Today, her work can been seen in museums around the world, including Kenyon’s very own Greenslade Special Collections and Archive.

Austin Porter, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), gave a lecture last Thursday about Kenyon’s collection of Bourke-White photographs, which were taken during the early days of the Soviet Union. Porter’s talk was given in conjunction with the Archive’s current photo display, Daguerreotype to Digital: American Photography, which traces the history of photography in the U.S. Bourke-White’s photos, while a part of this larger narrative, are not officially featured in the exhibition because they were shot abroad.

Bourke-White is best remembered for her documentary photography featured in publications such as Life Magazine, which brought the wider world to the American home. “Photography is unlike any other art because it travels in spaces in a way that painting and sculpture can’t,” Porter said.  “A photograph is a photograph whether it’s in a frame on the wall or if it’s in Life Magazine May 7, 1945.”

During the 1940s, Bourke-White worked as the first U.S. foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union, documenting the country’s rapid industrial growth. Kenyon’s archival collection includes one of Bourke-White’s portfolios from this time. The portfolio provides a look at the U.S.S.R. during this phase. The work contains an array of photos whose subjects range from steel workers to Joseph Stalin’s mother and great-aunt. 

But Bourke-White seldom photographed political figures. The only bureaucrat featured in the collection is a chief engineer photographed in front of a dam. The majority of her subjects, including Stalin’s relatives, were found in humble environments that obscured the role of politics. 

“Stalin’s mother made a comment that she wasn’t quite sure what her son did, or what his position was,” Porter said. “Mainly she was just disappointed that he wasn’t a priest.”

The lecture hit close to home for Professor of Art Emerita Karen Snouffer, whose father Bourke-White photographed during World War II. Snouffer conducted exhaustive research about her parents’ memories of the war as part of a five-year art project that culminated in an exhibition, Journey, at the Western Art Gallery in Cincinnati. Snouffer traveled to cities in France where her father remembered having been deployed, including Épernay, where a second exhibition of her work, Souvenirs Retrouvés (Memories Rediscovered), was shown at the local cultural arts center, the Médiathèque.

Snouffer funded the project using three Kenyon faculty development grants. She also read the many letters exchanged by her parents during the war. One such letter details the day that Bourke-White photographed Snouffer’s father outside the Buchenwald concentration camp. “The next day he said [in one of his letters], ‘Look for my photo in Life Magazine, because Margaret White just took my photo,’” Snouffer said.

Stories like Snouffer’s speak to the deeply human nature of Bourke-White’s photography. Sarah Jensen ’18, a student worker in the archives, attended the lecture to learn more about the history behind Bourke-White’s portfolio.

“I thought it was really interesting to understand the human aspect behind her photography,” Jensen said. “How photography can get into a person’s life even though one still image.”


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