She Was Above Self-Reproach
New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 20, 1986

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426 pp. New York: Harper & Row. $25.95.

MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE (1904-71) never had herself fired from a cannon or tried to seduce Joseph Stalin. But nobody who reads this book will doubt that she would have done these things without a moment's hesitation had either promised to provide a handsome photograph or enhance her reputation as a glamorous photojournalist with access to power.

First and foremost what emerges from this thoroughgoing but ambivalent biography are Bourke-White's extraordinary courage and concern for image - her own as well as those she trapped with her lens - not to mention her extreme manipulativeness. She could and did cry on cue whenever anyone stood in the way of a picture. In a man's world she also learned, as Vicki Goldberg explains, not as it turns out with total accuracy, to ''promise what she had no intention of delivering.''

Feminists today will no doubt be interested in Bourke-White as a pioneering career woman. But sisterly solidarity was not in her, and her story can be read as a fable about the high cost of success. Her secretary, Peggy Sargent, recalls: ''One thing I learned above all else from Margaret Bourke-White is the kind of woman I didn't want to be.'' Indeed, she seems to have taken other women's husbands as naturally (though with less passion) than she took pictures. But in a time when the black-and-white still photograph, that great instrument of beauty and communication, had not yet been relegated to museums, she became a world-famous photographer with a distinctive style of her own.

She was the first staff photographer of Fortune magazine, producing monumental industrial portraits and patterned aerial views that were one of her trademarks. Then, still using the large cameras she never gave up, she became a renowned Life photographer in the great days that led up to and through World War II. To make pictures she hung out of skyscrapers and airplanes and descended miles into mines. She photographed sharecroppers in the Deep South for a book with the novelist Erskine Caldwell to whom she was later rather stormily married. She photographed the war, in Russia, in North Africa, in Italy, in Germany and - in this as in much else the first woman to do so - she flew in and photographed a B-17 bombing mission.

Life magazine proudly used its brave and attractive photographer for publicity, and vice versa. Between trips she wore Adrian of Hollywood gowns, was amorously pursued and grew into a commercial celebrity, giving teas for famous friends, writing books, lecturing in colleges, posing for elegant advertisements to endorse a brand of cigarettes she did not smoke. In short, she was some sort of female fantasy come true. As Ms. Goldberg breathlessly puts it, ''By day she was cool, efficient, peremptory, driving, dressed in miner's clothes or parkas. . . . By night she switched into her glamour mode, dressed to the nines and flashing her thousand-watt smile.''

As a photography critic and art historian, Ms. Goldberg seems admirably evenhanded. She is adept at shoveling in necessary background on the evolution of still photography from arty pictorialism (blurred, romantic images sometimes achieved by putting a thin film of Vaseline on the lens) to the photojournalism of magazines like Life and Look which brought home harsh, exact and touching images of an expanding world to millions of readers. As one who thinks of salon photography as high art, she faintly patronizes these mass magazines. Yet it is precisely the great advantage of photographs over writing, for instance, that they can stir deep and subtle feeling in readers at all levels of sophistication, whereas words swiftly lose a chunk of audience when the text rises above, or drops below, a fairly minimal level of elegance and complexity.

Most biographers are obliged to sympathize with their subjects. Ms. Goldberg does so. Yet she mostly does not spare us Bourke-White's deceptions and exploitations of underlings, or her tendency when photographing to re-enact every scene, ruthlessly controlling subjects as if in a studio. Typically, the famous, friezelike picture of white-robed, starving Sikh refugees in India in 1947 was brutally posed. ''We were there for hours,'' Lee Eitingon, a Life reporter, recalls. ''She told them to go back again and again and again. They were too frightened to say no. They were dying. . . . She thought herself a great humanitarian, but when it came to individual people. . . .'' One result: the photograph is statuesque but essentially without emotion.

The real trouble with ''Margaret Bourke-White,'' for this reviewer at least, is that it sometimes limits itself to a People magazine version of the photographer's life. Much of the evidence offered suggests that she was a monster. Yet Ms. Goldberg, with many variations, tries to convince us and herself perhaps, that her heroine is really a shy, passive-aggressive creature driven by a compensatory lust for fame and fortune. For a male reader, at least, these difficulties are compounded by a mild sauce-for-the-gander feminism on the author's part in which it is understood that whatever Bourke-White does she is either (a) just behaving like a successful man or (b) that just by being male the men in her life deserve whatever happens to them.

Bourke-White burned most of her private diaries shortly before she died in 1971 after a long, heroic struggle against Parkinson's disease. But during several years of research and interviews, Ms. Goldberg found some of the early diaries, plus a lot of private notes. In the early going, Bourke-White seems a reliable witness about herself, and Ms. Goldberg creates an intricate and provocative portrait, as revealing as fiction, part ''Great Gatsby,'' say, part ''I'll Take Manhattan.'' We meet plain Peggy White, an awkward girl from Plainfield (N.J.) High, who is never asked to dance and carries a pet puff adder to school to get attention. The parents are admirable and amazing. Her mother, Minnie Bourke, the daughter of a drunken Irish ship's carpenter, demanded perfection and taught Margaret that fear was not an acceptable emotion. Her father, Joseph White, a taciturn, self-taught inventor, amateur photographer and naturalist, gave her a sense of the beauty and drama of modern industry. It was an austere, educative household, organized around the principles of Felix Adler's Ethical Culture movement. Neither chewing gum nor silk stockings were allowed. Margaret and her brother and sister could not even play in a household that harbored funny papers. Her brother got his first white bread at age 5 - and thought it was cake. BUT once launched in her career, Bourke-White lied a good deal in the service of her lifelong project: ''the creation of the myth of Margaret Bourke-White.'' To seem WASPY, genteel and a glamorous prodigy as well, she changed her name (slightly), expunged permanently from her past a disastrous marriage in college and divorce, also dropping into limbo several years of photographic experience and the fact that her father was Jewish. Famous Margaret is much given to upbeat delusions about the Soviet Union and life-transforming epiphanies. Ms. Goldberg points out many a Bourke-White untruth with appended corrections but manages to assert, as Bourke-White did herself, that her life was devoted to ''truth.'' The author also swallows the epiphanies whole, even offering some of her own: ''That night she crossed over to a profound new feeling of closeness to other human beings.'' If so, there was little evidence of it in her later behavior.

The best and wittiest epitaph for Bourke-White is provided by Helen Caldwell, whom Margaret deprived of her husband so that the famous author of ''Tobacco Road'' would go on doing the sharecropper book with her. Mrs. Caldwell stayed acquainted with Bourke-White and told Ms. Goldberg: ''I don't say she was above reproach. She was above self-reproach.''

Better to remember the courage, and the photographs. The Fort Peck Dam. The two dreamy-eyed gold miners in South Africa beaded with sweat. Gandhi with his spinning wheel. Mayor Frank (Boss) Hague of Jersey City looking like a neurotic Roman emperor in a double-breasted suit.

Everything but the Kleenex.  An unexpected discovery got Vicki Goldberg started on ''Margaret Bourke-White.'' In 1973, two years after Bourke-White died, 8,000 of her photographs turned up underneath a stairway in her Darien, Conn., home. They were found by a woman who was preparing a tag sale and who initially thought they might bring a dollar each. Eventually, most of them went to Syracuse University.

Ms. Goldberg, then a freelance writer with a master's degree in art history from New York University, knew a good story when she heard it. She told the tale in 1975 in New York magazine and subsequently began to write regularly about photography. She now writes a column for American Photographer magazine.

Bourke-White, she said, ''saved everything but the Kleenex.'' Although the photographer burned most of her diaries, she left a trove of envelopes, menus and Time Inc. memo sheets with thoughts on such questions as, ''Should I marry Erskine Caldwell?'' Many of these couldn't be deciphered without a magnifying glass, Ms. Goldberg recalled in a telephone interview from her Manhattan apartment.

Having revealed Bourke-White's less admirable qualities, did the author feel she was tarnishing an icon? ''She is still a hero,'' Ms. Goldberg said. ''But most heroes who were not saints were human beings with faults and foibles. That is not such a bad thing for all of us to know.''