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Week of 27 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 22


At the BU Gallery

Margaret Bourke-White and the power of paper

by Joan Schwartz

"Margaret Bourke-White is such a giant in photography," says John Stomberg, "that she can't be surveyed across the surface. The only way to capture her work in a single show is to take one commission and to go deep."

Stomberg, assistant director of the BU Art Gallery, has curated a new exhibition that does indeed go deep into the art of Bourke-White. Power and Paper: Margaret Bourke-White, Modernity, and the Documentary Mode, explores one of the major commissions of one of the century's best known photographers.

"Bourke-White is a huge figure largely because of her good fortune," says Stomberg. Her work appeared in the roto section of an Ohio newspaper that happened to be on a desk in New York -- and caught magazine publisher Henry Luce's eye. "This is the sort of thing I'm looking for," he is supposed to have said as he planned his new high-quality business magazine, Fortune. "Bourke-White became Fortune's star photographer," says Stomberg, "and her pictures largely defined the industrial style of photography in use at Fortune during the 1930s."

When Luce launched an all-picture magazine a few years after Fortune, he turned at once to Bourke-White, and the first cover of Life carried one of her stark, powerful images. Her work on the Luce magazines attracted a number of high-power, high-price commissions.

The exhibition at BU, true to Stomberg's approach, covers one of those big commissions -- certainly her most important up to that point in her career. It includes more than 80 photographs selected from more than 500 proof prints that Bourke-White submitted for a commission from the International Paper & Power Company. In the spring of 1937 she went to Quebec to make photographs for International Paper's 40th anniversary book, Newsprint: A Book of Pictures Illustrating the Operations in the Manufacture of Paper on Which to Print the World's News (1939).

Bourke-White's striking and elegant images evoke many different kinds of power -- from loggers wielding axes in the massive first-growth forests and maneuvering huge numbers of logs downriver to the huge 250 foot-long Fourdrinier machine in the paper mill that converted pulp into newsprint.

The images also represent Bourke-White's power and determination as an artist. The winter scenes, taken during her first trip, were made, in her words, "at 27 below zero in the lumber camps in Canada, when it was so cold my lens froze and I had to prop open my shutters with pencils to make them work."

The photographs are in both of Bourke-White's signature styles. Her early fame was based on photographs celebrating industry's abstract beauty. Later, after witnessing with her husband, Erskine Caldwell, the human cost of the dust bowl, she began making images in which people and their relationship to their work and environment take center stage.

This is evident in the Newsprint series, writes Stomberg in his text for the exhibition catalogue, which features 34 plates from the show. "In making these pictures, she balanced modernity with a humanism that aligned her with the antifascist art world. . . . The workers' lives deserved attention, consideration, perhaps even justification."

Power and Paper has a dual meaning, writes Stomberg. "On one level, it refers directly to the subject of the photographs themselves; they are pictures of paper manufacture and power production at the International Paper Company. But in a less direct way all photography is paper with power; it is the result of adding the perennially mysterious power of an image to a sheet of paper."

Power and Paper runs from Friday, March 6, to Sunday, April 12. The opening reception is Friday, March 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Vicki Goldberg, photography critic for the New York Times and author of several books including Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, will give a talk on Bourke-White's Turn to Photojournalism in the 1930s, on Tuesday, March 17 at 6:30 p.m., at the SFA Concert Hall. John Stomberg will host a gallery talk and tour of the exhibition on Tuesday, April 7, at 1 p.m. The exhibition and all Gallery events are free and open to the public. For information, call 353-3329.