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A look at the Margaret Bourke-White photos

VALLEY — Before the first issue of LIFE reached the newsstands on November 23, 1936, the magazine’s first female photographer had already toured the Valley.

Commissioned by the West Point Manufacturing Company’s treasurer, Carleton Richmond, Margaret Bourke-White spent September 27-28, 1936 touring the local textile mills. Carl Gaither, employed with the Shawmut Testing Laboratory, guided her around the mills and even held lights for her as she meticulously photographed the textile machines and workers.

From her visit, six photographs were enlarged at a cost of $2.00 per square foot, to eight feet by four and a half feet. Framed in black molding, the photo murals awed visitors to the Shawmut Testing Lab for more than 70 years.

A workman from Bourke-White’s studio in New York personally installed the photo murals in the spring of 1937. He traveled by train more than 20 hours one-way to reach West Point, Georgia, with the photo murals resting safely under his vigilant eye. According to an article by Virginia Smith, the murals arrived only two feet by three feet. At the Testing Lab, the workman smoothed and stretched the photos until they reached their specified size.

These larger-than-life photo murals document with striking clarity the industrial-age aesthetic that Margret Bourke-White pioneered. Functional machines and industrial processes held a rare beauty that Bourke-White knew how to capture.

Born in 1904 in New York, Margaret Bourke-White brought the world to her audience through her photographs. At the age of 25, she began working for Fortune magazine. She was the first Western journalist allowed to glimpse behind the Iron Curtain in three trips made to the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1933.

In between her trips to Russia, she pursued commercial photography for corporate giants like Ford and NBC. She accepted a full-time position with LIFE
magazine on September 4, 1936, but her contract permitted her two months every year to pursue her own projects.

During World War II, Bourke-White served as the first female war photojournalist. She photographed the Allied invasion of North Africa, surviving a torpedo attack on the boat that carried her to Africa. She managed to capture the narrow escape on film.

She remained with LIFE magazine until 1957 when Parkinson’s disease ended her photography career. She passed away in 1971.

Her biographer, Vicki Goldberg, found in Bourke-White’s notes a sentence that epitomized the photographer’s life philosophy and driving work-ethic: “In the end it is only the work that counts.”

Unmatched in her lifetime and after her death, Bourke-White’s work continues to count.

In 2015, the photo murals of the local textile mills were donated to Cobb Memorial Archives. This April a photo conservator, whose visit was made possible by an NEH grant, examined the photo murals. Her recommendations will help the Archives safeguard the photo murals.

The six photo murals are not currently accessible to the public. Digital imaging, however, could allow the Archives to display high-quality copies that would be visible to interested viewers while preventing any further damage to the originals.

Grants would help secure the necessary funding to digitally scan, repair, and reproduce the Margaret Bourke-White photo murals.

Age, water, and handling have damaged the photo murals over their eighty year history, but they continue to bear stunning, silent witness to this area’s textile heritage. Cobb Memorial Archives is privileged to preserve and share their wordless testimonies.

Please call Cobb Memorial Archives at (334) 768-2050 or email robinbrown@chamberscountylibrary.org with any questions or comments. To keep up with the latest news from Cobb Memorial Archives, please find us on Facebook.