More golden oldies from Sarah’s vault. I wrote this essay as an undergrad (1999 I think;) it’s not bad, a little naive, but I make some good points and have a few great examples. Mark and Bourke-White certainly have much in common.

Mark and WhiteBourke-White marks the evolution from the machine aesthetic to the more human approach. She was perhaps the most famous and respected photographer of her time, she moved the art of photography and science of journalism ahead. By exposing the truth and documenting the time Bourke-White has made a positive impact on this world. … Mark has followed Bourke-White’s humanitarian calling. Mark continues to photograph the small people and the everyday problems, unlike Bourke-White who was the best photographer on the scene, Mark wants to be the only photographer.

Margaret Bourke-White to Mary Ellen Mark: Documentary Heritage

Mary Ellen Mark and Margaret Bourke-White are both considered classic documentary photographers. Though their careers may seem to differ radically they actually have a lot of similarities in their style and their lives. In 1971, the year that Bourke-White died of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 67, Mark was thirty years old and still doing film stills and other freelance work. Mark had not yet decided to fully pursue documentary photography, but she had already photographed all over the world and produced her first book, Passport. In a few years Mark would become devoted to documentary photography. After photographing her famous Ward 81 series she never returned to the movies. Earlier in her career, after freelancing in New York City for a year, Mark headed to India following in the footsteps of Bourke-White. Even before the Ward 81 series Mark was continuing Bourke-White’s work and style of documentary photography. Marks’s photos are the late 20th century version of Bourke-White’s early and mid 20th century work. Bourke-White and Mark share many themes, some of their works differ drastically- this is because the are responding to different times, different worlds, but they deal with these vastly different worlds with the same techniques and methods.

In the early twenties Bourke-White went to seven different colleges before she finally got her BA from Cornell. Just out of school she began photographing the industrial goings on in Cleveland, and three years later in 1929 she began doing freelance work for Fortune magazine. She continued doing industrial photography for Fortune magazine, but also broadened her horizons and began to photograph an assortment of other things—from ad photography to feature articles from inside the Soviet Union. In 1936 she became one of the first staff photographers for Life magazine, it was her photo of Fort Peck Dam that graced the first cover. During this time she was also working on photo essay books on Americans. During World War II she photographed in the Soviet Union, was the first female photographer in the US AirCorps, and was one of the first photographers to see the Concentration camps. After the war she became interested in India and began to photograph the Indian people as well as Gandhi. Later in her career she started to do documentary work for Life and Fortune again, visiting the mines in South Africa and Korean War. She had to stop her photographic career short because of Parkinson’s disease and died 1971. Bourke-White is one of the most famous American photographers, she was also a woman succeeding in the male dominated world of the 1920’s through 1950’s she was the first women and even the first person to do a lot of things (like photograph Lenin smiling). She is truly an American hero.

The life and times of Mark are as impressive as those of Bourke-White. Mark was born in Philadelphia in 1940. She got a BFA in art and art history in 1962. It was during her graduate studies at Annenberg School of Communication she turned to photography. After graduation she applied for and got a Fulbright scholarship to go to Turkey and photograph. Mark continued to travel and photograph after the scholarship expired and for the rest of her life. In 1968 she like Bourke-White went to India for the first of many times. She returned to America and moved to New York City were she took many freelancing jobs doing movie stills. This lead to her 1970 photo essay “What the English are doing about Heroin” published in Look. She published her first book Passport, in 1974 as a sort of journal of her earlier and more recent travels. Again movie stills led Mark to a photo series. Mark was shooting movie stills for the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on location in the Oregon State Hospital. She met the women living in ward 81. The next year she returned to stay thirty six days documenting the women. This collaboration with Karen Folger Jacobs became the famous book Ward 81. After the success of Ward 81 Mark returned to India, the first time in 1979 to photograph Mother Teresa and her charities and again in 1989, this time to photograph for Life. Most recently she has been in India to photograph its circuses. In 1988 Mark earned the Worlds Press Award for Outstanding Life’s Work, and at the age of forty eight- she has not showed signs of slowing yet.

Sweetfern Damn Family

The life stories of Bourke-White and Mark are similar, they are both women succeeding the world of documentary photography. But the true similarities lie in their subject matter, style, and lastly career. Their subject matter is sometimes shockingly similar. Take for instance Bourke-White’s Sweetfern, Arkansas, 1936 (pl. 1) and Mark’s Damm Family in their Car, 1987 (pl. 2). The subjects here are of the same demographic separated by six decades. They both depict a family suffering due to poverty, a man and wife with a child (children). The house behind Bourke-White’s Sweetfern, Arkansas becomes the car in Mark’s Damm Family in their Car. In both photos the house and car are the families most important possession, in reality are worth very little. Both families seem to teeter at the edge of destruction. Both mothers look off into the distance as if the struggle to survive each day has taken a immense toll. The men adopt a supportive posture, in Sweetfern, Arkansas the father sits defensively while holding a stick and looking at the camera, he leans in towards his family. In Damm Family in Their Car the father holds the mother and, like the other father, stares in to the camera. The two families wear shabby attire, the boy in Sweetfern, Arkansas doesn’t even have pants. The tonal ranges are more similar than these reproductions show. The Bourke-White has a more gentle contrast than shown. The major difference lies in the composition, though diagonals are prevalent in both. Mark photographed the Damm family for her “Homeless Family” series, Bourke-White photographed the family in Sweetfern for her book You Have Seen Their Faces. Bourke-White and Mark are using the same methods and treating the subjects. The viewer does not only feel pity for these families, they also feel a sadness for them because the photographs treat them as people so they are able to feel for them like they would their family and friends. Mark and Bourke-White got to know their subjects, though it is apparent in these photos that Mark knew her subjects a little better, they seem more comfortable and relaxed. The two photographs invite the viewer in the world of the subjects by portraying them in their typical surroundings. Both Bourke-White and Mark feel sympathetic for these poverty stricken families and are striving for change with these photos. Documentary photography is trying to say something, these photos are revealing as to inspire help for people in these situations.

There are many other Mark and Bourke-White photos that are very similar from the same time periods, like Bourke-White’s East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, 1936 (pl. 3) and Mark’s Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, Illinois, 1987 (pl. 4). Both pictures show a young African American boy (with a dog in East Feliciana Parish, or a little brother in Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago). Without a parent in frame both boys stand in their cheap and worn housing. From the newspaper wallpaper in East Feliciana Parish to the mattresses sans bed sheets in Robert Taylor Homes, the homes that these boys live in give a good idea of how their life is. The boy in the Mark’s photo is staring into the camera as is his little brother, still in diapers he seems jaded as does his brother who is already bandaged. This clashes with the boy in Robert Taylor Homes who stares off to the side avoiding the camera’s gaze. The light comes from the side of the fame and lights his youthful face with a angelic glow, making the viewer think of innocence exploited Whereas the Mark photo Robert Taylor Homes with the confronting stare of the young boys is about lost innocence. Like Sweetfern, Arkansas and Damm Family in their Car the boys in Bourke-White’s and Mark’s photos are of the same poverty stricken demographic.

East Feliciana Parish Robert Taylor Homes

The differences in their housing and attitude reflect the changes that America has experienced during the fifty one years separating them. The poorer neighborhoods have been getting increasingly violent, younger and younger children are committing and dealing with violence. The number of violent acts committed by children under the age of 18 has been on the rise since the early 1980’s. The confronting stares of the young boys in Robert Taylor Homes signifies the alertness and attitude a child in the projects must grow-up with. The housing in both photos also offers an insight into their lives and the changes that have taken place over those 51 years. The Bourke-White photo show the boy in a run down house- but the house was his at least rented and kept up by his family. The neighborhood probably had an assortment of different members from the law abiding hard working people to the out of work and out of luck families. In Robert Taylor Homes the boys’ house is in the infamous Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago, Illinois. Housing projects are usually in the poorest and most crime ridden area of town (Robert Taylor is no exception), the schools are usually subpar and the housing inatqutite. People on welfare are sent to these projects by the hundreds, but there they do not find a supportive community, they simply find urban decay. East Feliciana Parish is about the rural poor and Robert Taylor Homes is about the urban poor. In the 1930’s when Bourke-White took East Feliciana Parish the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression were at hand. The country (even the government with the FSA) was watching the rural lower class (and even middle class) lose everything they owned. This is not to say that urban poverty was not a problem in the 1930’s it just wasn’t the focus of the country’s attention. Today America is focused on the failure of the projects and the rapid decay of many urban centers. Bourke-White and Mark know what was important to the country and the time- they photographed it and brought it to the attention of the world.

The similarities between Bourke-White and Mark go deeper than their mutual interest in the American poor and their sympathetic portrayal of these people. They shared a fascination with India and it’s people, they both spent extended periods photographing there. Bourke-White was able to meet and photograph Gandhi, over thirty years later Mark was in India photographing India’s other saint, Mother Teresa. They both enjoyed travel and photographed abroad extensively in the Soviet Union, Europe, and Asia. The middle and end of Bourke-White’s career is most akin to Mark’s. From the very start of her career Mark’s focus has been people, it wasn’t until the 1930’s and later that Bourke-White began to use people as her focus and even then not always. It is the way these women view and capture people that is so similar. In 1963 Bourke-White was quoted about her photographs during the Dust Bowl, “this was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subjects for the camera and photographed against a wider canvas then I had ever perceived before.” (Callahan 13). This “sympathetic sense” can be seen in her Life photos, her documents of the concentration camps, and in her pictures from India. From the first of her documentary work Mark has had clear concept about how she wants to use documentary photography and what she is trying to achieve through it. She strives to find the universals, to show real people to real people. “To touch on people’s lives [in a way they] haven’t been touched on before, it’s fascinating. You know, it’s one thing if [a celebrity] has an incredible character and you’re really going to be able to delve into their personality—that’s great. But you can never get real purity if people have been spoiled by the camera and don’t trust you. I like feeling that I’m able to be a voice for those people that aren’t famous, the people that don’t have the great opportunities.” (Fulton 26) These two women can be easily described as humanist in their desire to show people something they hadn’t seen or cared to noticed before, a by doing so illicit change.

It is obvious that the careers of Bourke-White and Mark are far from being identical; they are different people photographing at different times. The world is changing at an ever increasing rate. The world that Bourke-White grew up in and photographed was a vastly different place than the one that Mark, thirty six years her junior, did her growing up and photographing in. Bourke-White started her career photographing the industrial aesthetic in epic form. Architecture and machines were her subjects, not the people of her later years. Thanks to Alfred Steglitz and Paul Strand the machine aesthetic was in full swing. America was booming and production was at an all time high, the photographs and other art from this time reflect this excitement. America was, for the first time, the superpower it is today. Electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, planes, factories, grand architecture, and other industrial achievements had come so fast people were in awe of it. Bourke-White found it easy to photograph these factories, buildings, and workers in an epic way. It was from her industrial base that Bourke-White discovered and explored other subjects. She didn’t lack skill in tackling more emotional charged subjects like her India photos or her photos in Korea.

Monsoon Failed Goudi

From the earliest days of Mark’s career people were always her subjects, from the people in Passport to the people in her movie stills. The interest with industry has faded as we become more accustom to living with new technologies. But now the focus becomes the human condition, which is due in part to World War II and the very personal effect it had on most of the world. Mark tries to find out about her subjects, to talk to them and get to know them some. Some documentary photographers and critics criticize this saying that she isn’t being objective- some say it’s great and she is getting deeper more powerful pictures. Unlike Bourke-White, Mark refuses to cover current news—Bourke-White did this a lot during World War II and in India. Now Mark only photographs what she wants and how she wants it. She goes for the long term stories rather than short term glory, she picked projects that she felt personally attached too. Mark was thrilled when she got the go ahead from Life to photograph Mother Teresa Missions of Charities. The subjects Mark’s photos of India are much like Bourke-White’s. Two of the most comparable works are Bourke-White’s The Monsoon Failed this Year, India, 1946. (pl. 5) and Mark’s Goudi at Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity, Calcutta, 1981. (pl. 6). These photos are both of women, again probably of the same class. The subjects are remarkably similar in nature, both women are suffering in many ways. Bourke-White’s The Monsoon Failed this Year shows a older woman getting rice- she is almost skeletal with the bones in her arm showing through her skin. The same can be said about Goudi in Mark’s photo. Goudi’s arms and legs poke out of her gown like sticks. from. Both pictures depict almost identical subject with an immense emotional presence. Bourke’s photo is high in contrast with a harsh light coming from the upper right of the subjects. The woman is alone, she looks as if she has been caught mid motion, as looks out away from the camera. In contrast Mark’s photo has a large tonal range and flat lighting and little shadow. Her subject, Goudi, looks into the camera as does another women behind her, they seem comfortable but interested with the camera. Mark captures a larger picture, she includes Goudi’s surroundings as well as the people that she shares it with. In Bourke-White’s the woman stands alone out of context—as Americans the viewers can only guess where she is or what she is doing. Without the eye contact that Goudi gives, the women in Bourke-White’s picture is disconnected from the viewer and thus not as powerful. By allowing Goudi’s eye contact with the camera and by simply letting the viewer know Goudi’s name, Mark draws the audience into Goudi’s world and makes them see her as a real human. While the subjects are very similar and the sensitive way the two photographers dealt with them is analogous, the actual composition and tonality is totally different. This maybe due to the fact that Mark was able to travel and photograph without a writer. She had no narrative to follow, she was in charge and had to make no compromises. [But for the most part the differences shown here are the most obvious differences.] Bourke-White photographed the whole picture, as with her industrial and aerial work, or the little picture, each person as single entity. On the other hand Mark photographs in between; her photos either have a great depth to them or they are full of significant details. Mark is more intimate with her subjects, she spends weeks at a time with them, Bourke-White was from a more strict tradition of documentary photography, up until recently documentary photographers tried to keep a distance between them and their subjects, to keep their objectivity. Photographers now know there is little objectivity to begin with, and it is now understood that getting a more personal knowledge of the subject leads to a more informative picture.

Since it’s origins with the advent of photography documentary photography has been evolving. Bourke-White marks the evolution from the machine aesthetic to the more human approach. She was perhaps the most famous and respected photographer of her time, she moved the art of photography and science of journalism ahead. By exposing the truth and documenting the time Bourke-White has made a positive impact on this world. Her photos of India are our historical documents of their revolution, her photos of the concentration camps made the world now the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, and her photos of the rural poor help to institute the works programs of the New Deal. Mark has followed Bourke-White’s humanitarian calling. Her photos have informed people about mental institutions, the problems in India, and helped to draw attention to homeless teenage runaways. Mark continues to photograph the small people and the everyday problems, unlike Bourke-White who was the best photographer on the scene, Mark wants to be the only photographer.


Callahan, Sean, eds. The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1972

Fulton, Marianne. Mary Ellen Mark 25 Years. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1991

Goldenberg, Vicki. Margaret Bourke-White: a Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Mark, Mary Ellen. Passport. New York: Lustrum Press, 1974

Mark, Mary Ellen. Ward 81. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1994.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville, 1997.

8 Responses to “Margaret Bourke-White and Mary Ellen Mark: Documentary Heritage”  

  1. 1 Emily Reinauer

    This article did a very good job comparing Margaret Bourke-White to Mary Ellen Mark. I knew only a little about both artists. I found both of their photography very interesting. Mary Ellen Mark’s Damn Family in their Car I found a beautiful photograph. Just the look on everybody’s face, it gives emotion to the photograph. I agree that you can see it in the body language of the subject that there was trust between Mark and the family. In Margaret Bourke- White’s photo of The Monsoon Failed this Year I thought had a movie still quality to it with the harsh lighting. I admire them and respect them both as artists. They both are strong women who are not scared to photograph real life.

  2. 2 Amanda

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  3. 3 Amanda

    This one cool website after I read it

  4. 4 melkamu Dumessa

    Dear sir,
    I have a especial faire from film . How can i study film with you

  5. 5 Carine

    Thank you for this very good article on these 2 photographers. I was doing some research on Mary Ellen Mark and this came very handy.
    thank you.

  6. 6 Carolina

    Good Evening;
    My name is Carolina, I from Brasil.
    How i do to know most information about Mary Ellen’s Job?
    Thank You

  7. 7 Wanda Welbourn

    I am doing research for my term paper and would like to quote the dust bowl quote by Margared Bourke-White (Callahan 13) in my term paper. Please advise if I have your permission.


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