Standing The Test Of Time

In an age where we are becoming increasingly desensitized towards gruesome issues, can an art exhibition full of grisly images still provoke a reaction? Currently on display at Martin-Gropius-Bau are Margaret Bourke-White’s striking black and white images depicting (amongst other things) the horrors of war from around the globe in the early 20th century. Although she is long dead, Bourke-White’s work is obviously still relevant––war remains rife and despite our best efforts does not look like it’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. Yet do her images showing the effects of death and destruction still shock? In a nutshell: yes.

From Buildings To Bombings 

The first room documents the photographer’s beginnings in the U.S., where she embarked upon her photographic career by taking images of the flourishing industry of the time. Although industrial scenes are not typically beautiful (or feminine), Bourke-White manages to make the masses of concrete appealing, capturing her enthusiasm and “the power and vitality” she saw within them.

Martin Gropius BauConverting pine logs into paper at Union Bag & Paper Co. plant, 1939. Photo: Courtesy of MGB

Recognized for her talent, Bourke-White became the one of the first female photojournalists to work for both Fortune and Life magazines, and her image of Fort Peck Dam in Montana featured as the cover image of Life’s very first edition in November 1936. From then on she was assigned various roles as a war reporter, making iconic the image of her dressed in flying gear about to set off on a bombing raid, camera in hand.

Famous Friends 

Not only was the artist revolutionary in what she covered but also because of her gender; up until this point only a handful of female photographers such as Lee Miller joined Bourke-White in portraying the battlefields and grim realities of the time. On display at Martin-Gropius-Bau are written correspondence between Bourke-White and other artistic revolutionaries of the time, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams; the latter invited her to join him for Christmas at his beloved Yosemite.