Silent Symphony Of Soaring Steel: The Photography Of Margaret Bourke-White

“… industrial forms were all the more beautiful because they were never designed to be beautiful. They had a simplicity of line that came from their direct application of purpose.” —Margaret Bourke-White, 1963

Few photographers, to my knowledge, captured the imposing majesty of 20th century industrialism with as much deftness and clarity as American journalist, Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971).

White was a war-correspondant during WWII and came to be known to the staff of Life magazine as ‘Maggie the Indestructible’ for surviving a number of extraordinary circumstances, including abandonment in the artic, strafing by the Luftwaffe, a chopper crash in Chesapeake Bay, and the German bombardment of Moscow.

Presented below is a small selection of White’s prints of industrial scenes, ordered by date (20s to 30s), with historical commentary.

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Tower and Smokestacks of Otis Steel Co., Cleveland, 1928. The company is notable for being the first to build a open-hearth steel furnace, in 1875, and which massively contributed to Ohio’s transformation into the second-largest producer of steel in the United States by the end of the 19th Century. Otis merged with the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., 1942, which itself merged with  Youngstown Sheet & Tube, 1977.
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Untitled (Industrial Scene, Otis Steel Co., Cleveland)
1928.
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Blast Furnace Operator with “Mud Gun,” Otis Steel Co., Cleveland
1928. Film of the era was sensitive to blue, but insensitive to orange and red (colors typical of steel mills like Otis Steel Co.) and so, to achieve shots such as the one above, White utilized a magnesium flare, that the image would be picked up with clarity, prevented from coming out all black.
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Untitled (Train with Oil Cars, Otis Steel Co., Cleveland)
1928.
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Hot Pigs, Otis Steel Company, Cleveland
1928.
Heaped ore outside steel plant, brought by shipping along Great Lakes (1930) MB White.png
Heaped ore outside steel plant, brought by shipping along Great Lakes
1930.
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Ludlum Steel Company of Watervliet, New York, 1928 – 1931, a specialty steel manufacturer. The company merged with Allegheny Steel Company of Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, 1938.
Steel support struts inside several newl
Steel support struts inside newly constructed pipes to be installed in the diversion tunnel to carry the Missouri River around Fort Peck Dam construction, 1936.
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Margaret Bourke-White takes a photo from the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, New York City, 1934.

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The Photographer’s Dilemma (V)

When she arrived at Jamie’s apartment she was surprised, it was far less expansive and glitzy than she had expected, given he was a friend of Calvin’s. She knocked and Jamie quickly answered, smiling.

“Hey, you alright.”

“No, not really, not at all.”

She went inside and was given a cup of coffee and sat down as the television rang out in the background.

“This report just in… we warn you, however, the details of the case are graphic. The victim of the suspected homicide which occurred last night at 500 Rose Place has been identified as a one Jamal Greely. Sources tell us that Greely had spent time in a correctional facility in his youth for molesting his sister and, more recently, had been involved in a child trafficking ring which the police believe to have ties to the Serbian Underground, though this remains a matter of speculative correlation at this point in time. Greely was found in his home after a anonymous tip was sent to Detective Sebastian Blanca of the VPD. Alongside Greely Detective Blanca discovered copious amounts of drugs, principally heroin as well as numerous dog cages, some of which were filled with defecation and discarded diapers.” The reporter took a moment to exhale and inhale deeply, unable to continue any further, he blinked and cleared his throat and then continued reading his report, “Uh, no… children were found at the scene though it is believed he was keeping at least two, possibly three, children in his compound. The… caller has yet to be identified. No suspects have yet surfaced.”

“What an ugly mug,” Jamie sneered in between mouthfuls of yogurt he spooned into his maw as he watched. Ariadne looked up from him, to the screen for the first time since the report had came on and gasped. The face upon the screen tagged “Jamal Greely” was familiar to her.

“I know that man.”

Jamie spun upon her.

“You what now? How?”

“I met him last night.”

“He was murdered last night. Shit… that means…”

She nodded solemnly, “I must have left just in time. He must have been killed very shortly after I walked away from his stoop.” She shook her head, biting her lower lip, “I saw him, Jamie. The man who,” she gestured to the television, “Killed that piece of trash. I saw him.”

Jamie placed his hand upon her shoulder and she slumped against him, into an embrace. His warmth was comforting and very soon, Ariadne forgot about the photo of the eye and the man with the white jacket and the kidnapper on the stoop and Partridge and the galas and the art world and her dreams. In that moment there was nothing but her and Jamie and the synchronous beating of their hearts.

 

The Photographer’s Dilemma (IIII)

Campbell returned home elated. Finally, after all her struggles, she would be having her first major gallery showing, at one of the premiere lounges in the city and on a weekend no less where the maximal number of people would be likely to show up. It wasn’t just good, it was perfect. She moved sprightly to the kitchen, throwing her coat upon the kitchen counter and removing a bottle of wine from the fridge. She paused when she turned around to set it on the long faux-obsidian island. She had forgotten to open her mail, which sat in a thick cluster upon the table. Aridane set the wine bottle down and began shuffling through the papers, bills, bank statements, credit card offers and, at the last, a note that was wholly unlike the rest, all yellowish creme, with a tasteful silver ensign upon the upper left corner. It did not say who it was from but was addressed to her. She wondered if someone had delivered it by hand as she fished out a butter knife and slit the top of the tiny package. Inside was a small square, covered over in expensive parchment. When she folded it away a photograph of a human eye greeted her, sepia toned and eerie; it was beautifully bound in a simple black frame without ornamentation. With rising brows the woman set the photograph down beside the bottle and unfurled the parchment. It read: Do you see?

What the hell is this? Who would send this to…

She studied the eye on the table, it seemed familiar. It was certainly from a female subject. After a few more moments of deliberation she stood bolt up right and cursed underneath her breath.

Its MY eye. That means… Lynder… he’s the only person who has taken a photo of me recently. He took my picture at his last gala. It must have been him. It must have.

She picked up her phone and dialed the doorman.

“Eeeello, what may I do for you?”

“Grigs, this is Ariadne-”

“Oh hello Ms. Campbell, something the matter?”

“No, not really. I was just curious if anyone has come in the past couple of weeks, anyone you don’t recognize?”

“Uh, I don’t think so… oh wait, yeah, come to think of it there was a fellow came in early yesterday. Definitely didn’t live here, said he was visiting some friends. Had a white jacket, with a red design on the back.”

“What kind of design?”

“Looked like a chrysanthemum.”

“Shit.”

“What is it? You know him Ms. Campbell, cause if he’s giving you any trouble I’ll-”

“No. No its fine, Grigs. Something just occurred to me. Thanks.”

Her hand trembled as she set the phone down. Her mind reeling back to the alleyway and the man with the white jacket and the chrysanthemum ensign. Who was he? Why was he here? Was he the one who had left the letter with the photograph of her eye? How did he get it? Did he know Partridge? What the fuck was going on?

Suddenly it occurred to her – the copies. She ran to her dark room and gasped.

Her copies of the man with the white jacket were missing. All of them.

The phone rang out from the kitchen. Aridane nearly jumped out of her skin and then shook her head and swore under her breath and ran to the source of the noise.

“Y-yes?”

“Ariadne, its me, Jamie. I just wanted to make sure you were ok.”

“What?”

“I know we didn’t exactly hit it off, we were drunk and all, its just… there was a murder. Right outside of Calvin’s place, near the alley you take to get home.”

“How the fuck do you know what way I take to get home.”

“Calvin told me. Or, Svetlana told me and Calvin told her. I just wanted to make sure you were ok, Calvin would have called but he was in a meeting, he’s starting to get big offers and, er, it doesn’t matter.”

“What happened, who was killed?”

“Dunno. Police haven’t released any names or photos, they just got a anonymous tip that something was going down in The Tombs. They show up and some guy is lying on the ground in his house missing half his head. Skull was crushed.”

“Any suspects?”

“None. Lot of people live around there, even though walking at night you might not think it.”

“Well… thanks for calling me, Jamie. Listen… uh-”

“Is something wrong? You sound upset.”

“Yeah, actually, yeah something is really fucking wrong, someone broke into my place and stole my photos.”

“What… Why?”

“I don’t know. But I’m freaking out, does Calvin mind if I come over?”

“Like I said he’s in a meeting, he’ll be tied up for a while. You can come over to my place, I don’t live very far away from him. Ok?”

“Ok. Thanks Jamie.”

“No problem. I’m at 556 Essen Street. You know it?”

“I know it.”

“Ok.”

“Ok, I’ll talk to you soon.”

She hung up and grabbed her coat, silently cursing herself for not scanning her pictures and saving them online.

If I’d just scanned them whoever the bastard who had broken in would be shit out of luck. Dammit.

She starred a moment at the photograph of her eye and then pocketed it and headed for the door, locking it behind her. As she headed for the subway a man with a crisp white jacket watched from the shadows of a local parking garage. Eyes like lanterns in the night.

 

The Photographer’s Dilemma (III)

The wicked droning of the club-speaker’s drowned out all conversation, interaction was relegated to drunken glances and sensual movements. A communication of primal rhythm. Ariadne Campbell sat in the corner, starring sullenly at her half-empty glass. She could see them out of the corner of her eye. Dancing, kissing, rubbing, whispering about fucking. Her lip quivered. Head dizzy with drink. Knuckles white. The sound of the place was starting to become overwhelming, the sonic shredding roiling throughout the ambit of her mind like an ocean in a shell. She’d no idea why she’d accepted Calvin’s invitation.

I should have turned him down. I can’t dance. Don’t have a date. Probably look like a fucking loser. Sitting in the corner alone, sipping tequila. I don’t even know why I bought it. I can’t stand tequila… at least they didn’t drop a worm in it…

Some moments later a voice greeted her. Unfamiliar and husky.

“What are you doing sulking in the corner, beautiful?”

Her words came slow and messy, the alcohol haze masking the texts from the library shelves of her memory palace, “I’m not sulking. Who are you?”

“Rivers. Jamie Randall Rivers. You don’t remember me?”

“Oh, wait, we met at Calvin’s party, last Friday, right?”

“Right. What’s your poison?”

“Tequila.”

He raised his brows. That’s a whole lot of tequila for a little girl like you.”

“Hey, I’m not that little.”

“Little to me.”

“Is that a challenge? I bet I could drink you under the table.”

She had no idea where this sudden bravado was coming from and knew that she couldn’t out-drink the man if only because she felt extremely drunk already, yet even still, the words continued to gush from her mouth as if of their own accord.

“Well? Wadda ya say?”

He smiled like a wolf. “Sure.”

An hour and a half later, Ariadne and Randall were rolling with laughter, exchanging stories of their youth, business mishaps, their dreams, failed and achieved, all whilst knocking back shots like fish filtering water. Shortly thereafter, Calvin and his girlfriend finally left the dancefloor and made their way across the club to stand before the cackling duo, “Randall, I didn’t see you pop in, I’m glad you could make it.”

“Your parties are always great, man. Thanks for the invite, was only late because my kid was sick, poor girl couldn’t sleep.”

Ariadne sat bolt upright. Kid? He hadn’t mentioned a kid. Is he married? Does he have a wife? Why would he come over and call me beautiful if he did? I thought he…

“Why aren’t you two dancing?” Calvin’s girl inquired with a raise of a over-shaved brow. Aridane couldn’t remember her name. Was something strange. Foreign. Eastern European. Stoya or Stoylarov or Story or something like that. Calvin always had been possessed of a inexplicable appreciation for the exotic.

Randall raised his empty shot glass and shook the ice cubes therein which clattered like hollow bones, smiling. Calvin nodded and pointed to Ariadne, “How about you, you up for a dance… if you don’t mind, Svety?”

Svetlana, that was her name. Sounds like a low-shelf sugar brand.

Svetlana rolled her eyes, “I hate it when you call me that, sounds too much like ‘sweaty.'”

Ariadne and Randall burst into laughter as an embarrassed look ghosted across Calvin’s squarish, handsome face. “Sorry.” He mouthed sheepishly. She smiled and fixed him with her gaze.

“Actually, yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, I do mind. Now come on, this is one of my favorite songs.”

Without another word Svetlana dragged her hapless lover back into the crowded dancefloor as a saccharin pop piece thundered from the loudspeakers, “I just wanna taste you baby, I just wanna little piece of the pie, I just wanna feel you honey, I just never wanna see you cry-“

“I think I know this song, not really my cup of tea but-”

“You didn’t tell me you had a kid.”

He paused, confused, brows furrowed like a tractor-rent field.

“You didn’t ask. Is that a problem?”

“No. Its just… are you married?”

His right brow arched a little higher. Momentarily, he raised his left hand and wriggled his unadorned and evenly tanned fingers.

“Fraid not. You planning on proposing?”

“No, I was just curious.”

“Did you think I was hitting on you?”

Ariadne’s heart sunk. She didn’t know how to reply, every avenue, verbal and not, seemed equally likely to lead to social embarrassment.

“Uh, that isn’t what I said.”

“Because I wasn’t. I mean, not that I wouldn’t, I just-”

“Its fine.” She wanted desperately to say “forget it” but feared for sounding too forceful.

He cleared his throat and starred intently at his glass. Lynder’s words rang through Ariadne’s head as she observed the man, who looked so genuinely uncomfortable in that moment, “Art is documentation of one’s own creation, not of anothers.” This is MY creation, this moment of unease and emotional ambiguity, this voided mental space externalized.

She removed her Leica M4-P from her bag and, swiftly as possible, snapped a shot of Randall staring at his glass. He looked up in inebriated confusion and she snapped again.

“What are you doing?”

“I hope you don’t mind. I just felt… compelled.”

“Uh, well, I’m going to go and… get another drink. Be right back.”

“Ok.”

He never returned. After around ten minutes had elapsed she induced that he had like as not left or maybe had moved into one of the other chambers of Calvin’s strange, multi-stratified compound, a gift from his oft doting and well-heeled family. Perhaps looking for another girl. Perhaps not. It didn’t matter. He didn’t matter, not to her, not in that moment, all that mattered where her photos. Her art. She rose with such suddenness that she knocked over her glass, spilling the congealing contents of her cup across the table and made for the exit, she wanted to her, fearful that someone would catch her leaving and raise the litany of typical queries which the unimaginative always did in such situations. “Why are you taking off so soon?” “How come you’re leaving already?” and so forth. She had no time or patience or energy for such conversations. Her goal compelled her to swift action and that crystallization of purpose steeled her being and drove her through the foggy haze of alcohol and wavering, sultry bodies and noise and street-bound biomass into the winding labyrinth of the cities slums which had come to be known as The Tombs. As she rounded the corner of the first alley which let out from the Calvin’s northern block she bumped into a tall man with a white jacket.

“Fuck, I’m sorry.”

The man looked down upon her without sound, or at least assumed he did, for his face was masked in shadow, swallowed whole by the pall cast by a dark red ballcap.

The man continued to regard her a moment without moving and then spoke, his voice low and flat and strange.

“These streets are unsafe, especially at such an hour. It is unadvisable to walk them alone.”

“You seem to be doing just fine by your lonesome.”

“I am never alone.”

She was too stunned by this sudden theatrical turn to properly respond. What did he mean? Was he on drugs? He didn’t seem like a tweaker. It was only when the man had half vanished from sight that Ariadne regained the powers of speech. She noticed, as she watched him go, a curious ensign upon the back of his jacket. A red chrysanthemum. When the man had gone she continued on her way back to her apartment which lay at the south eastern corner of the Tombs. She raised her Leica and took his picture.

She passed by a old black man sitting upon the stoop of a decaying tenement who was dressed in a broad brimmed hat and ragged flannel. He looked up hungrily, speaking softly but excitedly.

“Hey honey, you looking for a little… something something.”

She wasn’t sure whether he meant drugs or sex or some combination thereof; the one thing she was certain of was that he was implying at least one of the three.

“Nope.”

“You sure bout that?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Cool, cool, cool. Suit yaself.” He lit up a cigarette and looked off into the dark vacantly, puffing and rubbing his chin as the wind picked up and tore through the massive concrete structures with the dessicated rattling of a hundred thousand cicadas. Once he’d looked off she snapped a photo of him as well. He suddenly looked back towards here.

“What the fuck you doing?”

“Just taking pictures.”

“Take them somewhere else.”

“Sheesh, don’t get your panties in a knot,” she sneered taking another picture of the man. A dark look came then over his face and he rose up from the stoop, his posture threatening.

“The fuck you say, bitch? Get the fuck out of here.”

She snapped mid-rise and at full height, as his mouth hung open, spittle flying, anger radiating from his eyes and vaporizing up with the cool blue of the moon.

“Alright, calm down.” She implored the man, turning, her heart racing a little faster than usual.

“Be calm when you ain’t taking no more pictures, I don’t do that tabloid shit.”

She pocked the camera and waved at the man whose wrathful glare continued to follow her down the length of the street until she vanished in the void.

Once home she grabbed up her mail, threw it on the kitchen island and shut herself up in the darkroom, developing her photos of Jamie Rivers.

*

“These are pretty good,” the old man stated flatly, as he examined the photographs, his brows slightly raise, his glasses perched upon the end of his nose, “I don’t tend to see a lot of slice-of-life work anymore from serious photographers. Documentation is out, digital manipulation is in. Fantasy portraits are currently the favored flavor of the month. Lots of demon-ladies and badly photoshopped levitation scenes, etcetera. Tedious. Very tedious. But this, this has some grit to it, unearths the petty squalor of the inner city, the emulsification of crushed dreams and the vain striving to move beyond that vitiation.”

“Is ‘pretty good’ good enough for your gallery, Mr. Thompson?”

“Well, you just get right down to business don’t you. Brass tacks then. Yes.”

Ariadne heard his words, registered them, but even still she could not believe in their veracity. For years she had been struggling to break into the gallery scene, into the upper crust of the art world. Now, at long last the delicious nectar of victory dangled tempting just above her tongue. To taste it…

“What?”

“Yes. I would love to put these up for display. However, before I do, I’d like to know why you’ve taken them. What’s your motivation, Ms. Campbell?”

“Um…” Her tongue caught in her throat. It was not a question she was accustomed to being asked, “To be… more than just a vessel. To show through my pictures of the city, how much one person can change it, even if only so slightly. We forget how much impact we have on those around us, especially when we chance into them but once and never met them again.”

The old man paused, strike buy the peculiarity of her answer.

“Most people just list off what they want to get with the attention that is brought by their art. Listen, Ms. Campbell, as I’d said before, I would very much like to put these up; I’m hosting a show in a week, Saturday; you can leave these here and my people will set them up along with the other displays.”

“That’s fine, I’ve copies.”

“Good good, but I assure you, we take the utmost care in the maintenance of our pieces.” The old man paused and looked out the window whereupon a enormously fat woman was slurping from a fast-food cup, “It is rare enough we take care of our bodies and thus our minds, to say nothing of their products. For this reason I like to look at art like a body, a extension of it, a fusion of the body with the world. Thoughts are bodies. Thoughts and dreams.”

“Art is the crystallization of a dream.”

The old man smiled even as he tilted his head in perplexity.

“You sound just like Lynder Partridge.”

 

Glitch-Art Self-Portraits

Taking a break from writing and engaging in some aesthetic experimentation with various digital manipulation programs. Haven’t titled any of them yet. A touch narcissistic but I make a more compelling subject for the kind of effects I was attempting to achieve than mugs, rugs or coffee cups.


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