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Chrysler Building: Tower
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Margaret Bourke-White braved terrifying heights to snap the perfect pic.

Bourke-White was monikered “Maggie the Indestructible,” for her ability to survive the most dangerous of situations. Which included scrambling around atop New York City’s Chrysler building, an art deco behemoth of a tower.

She was a highly versatile photographer, but first established herself through her striking portraits of industry. Part of her stylistic edge was to bring out the dramatic design elements of buildings, factories and industrial materials. These images posed a stark contrast to the hazy, romantic pictorialism of early photography; hers was an aesthetic that boldly celebrated industrial progress. She had been working successfully in Cleveland when Fortune Magazine lured her to New York. They were a brand-new publication who thought her modern, elegant pictures could make them a standout source of business coverage. Fortune put her on a part-time salary of $12,000 per year. In 1930, that was equivalent to just over $170,000! Yowza!

Given her portfolio, it made sense that she was commissioned in 1930 to document the construction of the Chrysler building. She was able to deftly capture the Chrysler building’s soaring grandeur, elegant details, and perilous heights. After the building’s completion, she would move her New York studio to the 61st floor. At the time, no one else was living in the building but a maintenance guy--but her apartment was a fabulous art deco bachelorette pad, complete with a fish tank suspended over the bar and gargoyles perched off of the terrace. To announce her new digs, she put this image on a card that she sent out to friends and family back home, as if to boldly declare “I’ve arrived.”

Bourke-White once said that “photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.” And hope that it doesn’t let you plunge to your untimely death.

Sources

Sources

  1. “Chrysler Building, New York.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 21, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/265396
  2. Cosgrove, Ben. “'Great Lady With a Camera': Margaret Bourke-White, American Original.” Time. June 13, 2012. Accessed August 31, 2017. http://time.com/3735284/great-lady-with-a-camera-margaret-bourke-white-a...
  3. “CPI Inflation Calculator.” United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed September 1, 2017. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=12,000&year1=193001&year...
  4. Foote, Timothy. “She Was Above Self-Reproach.” The New York Times. July 20, 1986. Accessed August 31, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/20/books/she-was-above-self-reproach.html...
  5. Oden, Lori. “Margaret Bourke.” International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. Accessed August 31, 2017. http://iphf.org/inductees/margaret-bourke/
  6. Selwyn-Holmes, Alex. “Margaret Bourke-White.” Iconic Photos. July 5, 2009. Accessed August 31, 2017. https://iconicphotos.org/2009/07/05/margaret-bourke-white/
  7. Shapiro, Danielle. “John Vassos Designed Margaret Bourke-White’s Art Deco Chrysler Building Office.” Johnvassos.com. March 17, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2018. http://www.johnvassos.com/blog/john-vassos-designed-margaret-bourke-whit...
  8. Stamberg, Susan. “Bourke-White’s ‘Photography of Design.’” NPR. February 26, 2003. Accessed August 31, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2003/02/26/1175402/bourke-white-s-photography-of-design