Inches away was an image of starving Jewish children gazing through the barbed wire boundaries of a concentration camp.
Despite the separation of time and distance, the human condition captured in the images of Margaret Bourke-White was the same.
“There’s an echo and a similarity, but not an identity,” Alex Lichtenstein, IU associate professor of history and the curator of the exhibit, said. “It wasn’t exact, but it was driven by racial hatred, and she’s quite explicit about that.”
On Sept. 6, the Mathers Musuem of World Cultures staged a grand opening commemorating the rarely-seen work of the late photographer.
Entitled “Photos in Black and White: Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid in South Africa,” the collection of photographs captures the birth of the South African anti-apartheid movement. Bourke-White shot the photos while visiting South Africa from December 1949 to April 1950 for an assignment with Life magazine.
Lichtenstein said he came up with the idea for this exhibit while researching South African labor history. He discovered a photograph by Bourke-White depicting two South African miners.
“She’s there at a heated political moment where the Afrikaner nationalists are consolidating their power, celebrating their triumph and where people of color are trying ways of resisting this,” Lichtenstein said. “It was rapidly becoming very, very harsh and severe.”
Bourke-White began her career as a photographer for Fortune magazine capturing images of international labor. After becoming a permanent photographer on the Life magazine staff, she rose to prominence for her photography of historical moments, including the liberation of concentration camps in World War II.
“The thing that really amazed me was that she was so good at being in the right place at the right time,” Lichtenstein said.
In 2000, a Fulbright scholarship led Lichtenstein to South Africa, where he gained an interest in South African labor relations.
He said he searched through archives from Life magazine and found more than 150 of Bourke-White’s photographs from South Africa, many of which had never been shown in public.
He said he chose about 40 images for the exhibit and then conducted more research on the South African apartheid. He added text and other material to supplement the pictures.
Some of the supplementing materials, he said, include excerpts from letters Bourke-White wrote after her time in South Africa, which express how angry she became while seeing apartheid unfold.
“The most compelling thing is that she wrote the letters the minute she got on the plane to leave South Africa,” Lichtenstein said. “She bottled up her anger. She pours out and lets loose all these feelings.”
He said he organized the gallery into five sections: life working in the mines, the nature of white nationalism, life on the farms, resistance and protest and the shanty town of Moroka, located on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Lichtenstein said this was the story he wanted his exhibit to tell about South African apartheid.
“I wanted to find a way to create a story with the photographs,” Lichtenstein said. “Pull a story about apartheid and about South Africa, but also a story about Bourke-White.”
The documentary style of Bourke-White’s photography in the collection later surfaced within South Africa in a publication titled Drum. The photographs of the publication echo many aspects of Bourke-White’s work in the nation. Today, the magazine is still in publication.
“She wanted to use photography to emphasize social justice, human rights and the dangers of racism,” Lichtenstein said. “That sort of documentary photography to try and show what’s going on remains relevant.”
Judy Kirk, assistant director of the Mathers Museum, said Bourke-White’s images really capture a “horrible era” in history.
“She was a woman on a mission to document this,” Kirk said. “Over time, she began to see photography as a tool for social good. Her images are striking.”
After the exhibit concludes at IU, it will open at the Bensusan Museum of Photography in Johannesburg in January 2014. The tour will conclude at the Michaelis Galleries in Cape Town, South Africa, in April.
In connection with the exhibit, IU Cinema will present a three-part film series called “South Africa: Apartheid and After” Oct. 22, Nov. 2 and Nov. 10. Mathers will also present a symposium Oct. 31 about Bourke-White, photojournalism and South African photography.
The symposium features Santu Mofokeng, a South African photographer, John Edwin Mason, a historian of South African and U.S. photography at the University of Virginia, and Claude Cookman from the IU School of Journalism.
Lichtenstein said although curating the exhibit was challenging, he enjoyed putting it together and learning more about South African history.
“I find this kind of work really gratifying,” Lichtenstein said. “Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen dramatic transformations in the country. That’s been a really exciting process to witness.
“The point wasn’t just to expose the photos to the Bloomington audience, but to foster a collaboration with South Africa.”
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