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Margaret Bourke-White

Dam at Fort Peck, Montana

1936, printed c. 1970

Artist

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Title

Dam at Fort Peck, Montana

Date

1936, printed c. 1970

Medium

Gelatin silver print

Dimensions

Image: 12 11/16 × 10 7/16 in. (32.2 × 26.5 cm) Mount: 19 15/16 × 15 7/8 in. (50.6 × 40.3 cm)

Credit line

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Sean Callahan

Accession number

92.55

Object Label

Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph Dam at Fort Peck was reproduced on the cover of the inaugural issue of Life, published on November 23, 1936. Publisher Henry Luce had sent Bourke-White, one of four photojournalists originally hired by the magazine, to shoot a chain of dams being constructed on the Missouri River in northeast Montana under the Public Works Administration agency of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Fort Peck was the highest of these and the world’s largest earth-filled dam. Bourke-White’s image reveals her ability to impart grace and majesty to the bleak, utilitarian forms of industrial architecture. The dam’s massive concrete spillway piers, which stretch to the edges of the image, evoke the soaring walls of ancient monuments, or crenellated castle towers. Bourke-White’s close cropping has them reaching the clouds and dwarfing a pair of human subjects. Luce’s choice of this photograph for his first cover was both canny and strategic: Dam at Fort Peck embodies a machine-age optimism that was likely well-received by a country hobbled by the Great Depression.

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