Among the giants of photojournalist in the mid-twentieth century was Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971). She was the first foreigner permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry, the first American female war photojournalist, and the first female photographer for Henry Luce’s Life magazine. Much of this photography focused on poverty during the Great Depression, particularly in the American South.
Arguably no photograph exemplifies this genre better than Margaret Bourke White’s image “Kentucky Flood, 1937.” This is the fifth “Favorite Photograph for 2015. In January and February of 1937 the Ohio River flooded. It is estimated that one million people were left homeless, that 385 were killed, and property losses reached $500 million ($8 billion in today’s dollars). The photograph brilliantly shows desperate African Americans in a bread line standing in front of a billboard that pictures the “typical white American family” and proclaims “World’s Highest Standard of Living; there is no way like the American way.”
What is most remarkable about this photograph is its timelessness. It speaks of historical events and the fundamental dignity of humans facing extreme adversity. At the same time it might as well be a poster today for “Black Lives Matter.” The true paradox of the image is that “the real American Dream” is not in the white faces of the family in the car but in the “black faces on the line.” In the words of Edward Kennedy 1980.”
“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”