Margaret Bourke-White and the Chrysler

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Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building.  c. 1930
Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building.  c. 1930

It’s practically impossible not to photograph the Chrysler Building. Most people achieve it standing on the ground, looking up…

However, some striking photos were taken from the dizzying heights of the glistening Chrysler crown. While the Chrysler was being erected to be the tallest in the world – a typical requirement for a skyscraper in Jazz Age New York – Walter Chrysler hired Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer, to document its construction step-by-step. At the time, she was a rising star, a photographer-extraordinaire, who not only developed new revolutionary photo techniques but also seemed to have no fear. The latter landed her on the scaffolds of the Chrysler building during the winter of 1929-30, taking photos while balancing on a beam on an eight-foot-long beam swaying 800 feet in the air.

Sergej Eisenstein by Margaret Bourke-White
Russian film director Sergej Eisenstein being shaved on the terrace of Bourke-White’s studio in the Chrysler Building, NYC, 1932. (Source: Sergej Eisenstein by Margaret Bourke-White | kinneretstern)

When the skyscraper was completed, Margaret Bourke-White was fortunate enough to rent a studio on the 61st floor with a view to the gigantic gargoyle eagles. She could photograph the city from this incredible vantage point, sometimes from her windows and sometimes from actually sitting over the eagles. She loved her studio so much that she hated to go home at night. She never had an apartment in the Chrysler, but not for the lack of trying. The city laws stated that no one could reside in office buildings, except for a janitor. She did apply for the position but was refused as it was already filled by someone better qualified for the job. The studio had access to the terrace where she had occasional cocktails with her co-workers and kept two pet alligators.

Besides braving the heights while shooting the Chrysler’s construction, she routinely undertook mortally dangerous assignments. She flew with the bombers during the WWII, found herself stranded in the Arctic, and was pulled out of the Chesapeake Bay after a chopper crash. No wonder she became known as “Maggie the Indestructible.”

Margaret Bourke-White was the first staff photographer of Fortune magazine, the first female photojournalist for Life magazine, the first female American war photojournalist allowed in World War II combat zones, the first official photographer for the Air Force, and the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

While in Russia, she captured a rare occurrence of smiling Joseph Stalin, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt. When the war ended, she was one of the first (and certainly the most celebrated) of the photographers to document the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.

Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners by Margaret Bourke-White
Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners stare in disbelief at their Allied liberators, April 1945. (Source: Margaret Bourke-White The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Margaret Bourke-White died from Parkinson’s in 1971. Her work and bravery remain completely unique… just like the Chrysler.

Margaret Bourke-White on the Chrysler Building by Oscar Graubner
Margaret Bourke-White on the Chrysler Building by Oscar Graubner (Source: nobrashfestivity.tumblr.com)

References:

Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America  by Donald L. Miller

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Bourke-White#cite_note-scout_productions.com-3

https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/margaret-bourke-white-groundbreaking-nyc-photographer/

https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/first-in-their-field-margaret-bourke-white/

https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/first-in-their-field-margaret-bourke-white/

http://www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/margaret-bourke-white

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