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Historical Vignette 066 - A Famous Female Photographer's Shot of a Corps Project was LIFE's First Cover

In 1936 Capt. Claude H. Chorpening had responsibility for public affairs at the Corps’ massive Fort Peck Dam project on the Missouri River in Montana. One of his tasks was to escort world-famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) on assignment to photograph the project and surrounding activities for magazine publisher Henry R. Luce. Bourke-White spent several days photographing the dam, spillway, and life in the surrounding workers’ towns. While the results weren’t so pleasing to Chorpening—he thought she spent too much time on the towns, which weren’t Corps responsibility, and not enough on the project—Bourke-White did produce several stunning photos of the project itself, including one that graced the cover of the first issue of LIFE magazine, published in 1936. Although Bourke-White titled the photo, "New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam," it is actually a photo of the spillway located three miles east of the dam.

First LIFE magazine cover from 1936 with logo and photo of Fort Peck Dam's spillway by Margaret Bourke-White (© Margaret Bourke-White/TIMEPIX)


Margaret Bourke-White, as one writer has commented, “contributed many things to the world of photography. She was a woman, doing a man’s job, in a man’s world, from the foundries of Cleveland to the battlefields of World War II. She was an original staff photographer for two of the most prominent magazines of her day, Fortune and LIFE. She led a life full of adventure, pioneering a new art form: photojournalism. Margaret Bourke-White was, and still is, one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century.”

Margaret Bourke-White, self portrait, during a WWII photo assignment
(The Sandor Family Collection, 1943, 19 1/8” X 15 ¼” vintage gelatin silver print)

Please note: photos used with permission and may not be reproduced.

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March 2003