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Book News

Biography gives a balanced look at an amazing woman

'Margaret Bourke-White:
Her Pictures Were Her Life'

by Susan Goldman Rubin

Harry Abrams, $19.95

Review by Bruce Kennedy

November 30, 1999
Web posted at: 2:38 p.m. EST (1938 GMT)

(CNN) -- Successful biographies capture the flavor of the person they are documenting. Needless to say, that can take a great deal of time and willingness to delve into issues such as character and morality.

In the case of photographic innovator Margaret Bourke-White, however, the biographer has a subject who truly lived out each day, who kept great diaries, and who was one of the 20th century's true celebrities.

Susan Goldman Rubin has written this biography for children and young adults, but has managed to give a balanced and inspiring look into the life and work of an amazing woman -- one of the first people to combine photojournalism with art, while covering some of the major events of the day.

Even those already familiar with Bourke-White's work will be drawn to this very accessible account. Rubin starts in 1942 -- when a German submarine torpedoed the troopship Bourke-White was traveling on en route to North Africa. The photographer had the presence of mind to continue taking pictures, even while her ship was sinking. General Jimmy Doolittle, commander of the 12th Air Force, had ironically forbidden Bourke-White from flying to her destination -- saying it was too risky. Doolittle later allowed Bourke-White to go on a bombing mission -- the first woman to do so.

Bourke-White was truly self-made. "I should like to be a news photographer-reporter and a good one," she once told a teacher. The fact that she succeeded in a male-dominated field is remarkable enough. But she went on to produce images that have since become historic milestones. Her early artistic work with American architecture is contrasted by her famous, stark pictures of Depression-era farmers and workers trying to get by. Bourke-White's pioneering work for Life magazine, the featuring terrifying images of war, the concentration camp victims at Buchenwald, and Gandhi at his spinning wheel, established her place in the photographic pantheon.

Rubin's text is simplistic, but with a purpose. Camera techniques are explained, as are important historic events. But the tone is never condescending. Quite the opposite, the book leaves even a jaded adult reader with the sense that they've been given a virtual slide show into the life of a remarkable person.

Bruce Kennedy is part of CNN Interactive's Special Projects unit. He has worked in international news for more than 15 years.

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