By the end of the 1930s, Margaret Bourke-White had transformed from an industrial photographer in Cleveland, to one of the world’s most accomplished and pioneering photojournalists. Her driving ambition to succeed in the male-dominated field of photojournalism meant she was continually putting herself in adventurous and dangerous situations in order to capture the unique and exclusive image. This would ultimately lead to Bourke-White becoming the first female photographer for Fortune and influential Life magazine, the first woman accredited as a war photographer, and the first woman to fly on a bombing mission. Because of her courage and innovative photography during some of the most tumultuous and changing years in the 20th century, Bourke-White remains one of the preeminent photojournalists who was fearless in her desire to test the limits of where the groundbreaking photographer could go and how to capture remarkable images for all of the world to view.
Proof of Bourke-White’s unrelenting desire to create the unique and awe inspiring picture, is her dramatic aerial view of a DC-4 passenger airplane flying over Midtown Manhattan in 1939. As she described getting the shot, “I flew, strapped into a small plane, in close formation with one of the big passenger planes. My pilot flew me over it, under and around it, to get the effect of the big plane looming large in the foreground with the skyscrapers below.” The elegantly composed and impeccably timed image captures the early spirit of commercial aviation in the muscular and sleek form of the innovative DC-4 that would eventually be used by United Airlines to fly passengers between New York and Chicago. It also captures the energy and opportunity of the modern marvel that was 1930s New York City with the Chrysler Building looming in the background, which also once housed Bourke-White’s studio on the 61st floor. Most of her celebrated pictures came about as assignments for magazines and an almost identical photograph from this shoot was published for the story “The DC-4” in the June 19, 1939 issue of Life. The image encapsulates not only the innovation and possibility that was at work in the United States in the late 1930s, but also the adventuresome yet elegant persona of one of photography’s great characters who would leave behind a body of work as iconic as the history it conveys.