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Margaret Bourke-White wasn’t just the first woman photographer at Life— her images dominated the magazine’s inaugural issue when it premiered in November 1936. Her assignment to cover the building of the Fort Peck Dam was meant as a continuation of the kind of industrial documentation she excelled at while working for Fortune, but as the telegrams she sent back to her editors make clear, her interests went beyond the project itself to include the lives of people living in the nearby settlement. The cover image she produced remains iconic, and the accompanying photographic essay helped set the tone for what Life would be as a publication. 

The magazine’s editors described her work in their introduction:

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White had been dispatched to the Northwest to photograph the multi-million dollar projects of the Columbia River Basin. What the Editors expected—for use in some later issue—were construction pictures as only Bourke-White can take them. What the Editors got was a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation. Having been unable to prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine pages, the Editors thereafter returned to the job of making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense.

Margaret Bourke-White. Telegrams to Dan Longwell. October 27–November 4, 1936. Time Inc. Bio Files. New-York Historical Society.

Life. November 23, 1936. Time Inc. New-York Historical Society.

Processing of the Time Inc. Archive is made possible through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation