Modern times, hard facts as they are

Article by Andrea Ongaro in Berlin; Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013

It was the daybreak of the twentieth century when the machine, a well known friend nowadays, began not only to be valued for its use, but for its look as well. America in the 1920s and the early 1930s was increasingly a machine-driven culture and with few exceptions the world of photography was ruled by men. One of those exceptions was Margaret Bourke-White, whose work is exposed diligently in two big side rooms of the Martin Gropius Bau.

Margaret Bourke-White is considered to be one of the first photojournalists in the history of photography and she was the first woman to join teams of magazines such as Fortune and Life. Her career began in the steel mills of Cleveland, when she started photographing the industrial machineries in 1927. Her faith in technology is evident in her photos and reflects a profound belief in the utopia of a world healed by the progress of industry and a consequent wellness for everybody. The machine, with its monumental presence and precise forms, always represents the center of her artistic production.

In most of her pictures she chooses impressive angles and cuts with an extremely modern visual language. It’s impossible not to think of a filmic masterpiece that handles the same subject, but with a diametrically opposite approach: Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. Both artists were dealing with industrialization around the same years, which is not an oddity, but while Chaplin’s character struggles funnily to survive in the modern world, Bourke-White adopts a point of view in the New Objectivity style, presenting industrial elements and hard facts as they are.

In 1930, Bourke-White as first foreign photographer, traveled to the Soviet Union. She was attracted by the government’s obsession for technology that one year earlier undertook its First Five-Year-Plan and was drastically dragging the country to an industrial transformation. In this particular series of pictures, realized between ’30 and ’32, Bourke-White adopts a more journalistic and documentary approach. Her role as photojournalist along with the soviet faith in industry, lead Bourke-White to turn her attention to life conditions in the Soviet Union, displacing a investigation from a detached point of view that showed a big difference with the American way of life.

Later, as Life photojournalist, Bourke-White was sent to Europe again, just before the outbreak of World War II. During her extensive journey she had the chance to take some extraordinary pictures from the roof of the American embassy while the German were bombing Moscow in July 1941. In spite of the tragic event, those pictures look like massive fireworks that have resulted as abstract compositions made out of light scratches. Furthermore she had the opportunity to photograph Stalin and this portrait – exposed in the exhibit – is probably one of the most renowned images of the dictator.

Bourke-White was then assigned as a war photographer to the U.S. Air Force in 1943, the very first time for a woman. Just to mention another episode of her extraordinary life, she was there when the Allies liberated the first concentration camp in Buchenwald. She witnessed the horror and she left us some captures that should be considered between the most important visual heritages we have. Pushed onward by an “unquenchable desire to be present when history is made” and the will of being the “eyes of the age”, as she herself put it, Bourke-White has been many times at the right place in the right moment and her pictures stand for an era. The exhibition is a due retrospective that pays a right homage to a great woman, who not only stood out as an artist, but has also been a pioneer for the equality of the sexes in the world of photography.


Additional Information

“Fotografien 1930 – 1945” – MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE
Exhibition: Jan. 17 – Apr. 14, 2013
Niederkirchnerstraße 7 (click here for map)


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