Bourke White

Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904–1971)

NBC Radio--Microphone, 1935
Gelatin silver print on paper, 12 x 13 7/8 in. (sheet);
10 1/2 x 13 1/4 in. (image)
Museum Purchase

“The beauty of the past belongs to the past. It cannot be imitated today and live,” Margaret Bourke-White wrote in 1928.(1) This photograph of a radio microphone, a key image in one of her most ambitious projects, exemplifies her belief that contemporary subjects should be represented in a contemporary style. The image is part of an enormous photomural for the rotunda of the NBC studios in the RCA Building in New York’s Rockefeller Center that was installed in December 1933 and removed and presumably destroyed in 1953 or 1954. Bourke-White called photomurals “a new American art form,” and as an ambitious, entrepreneurial commercial photographer, she championed their use in corporate décor.(2)

Alfred Stieglitz told Bourke-White that she “saw big,” meaning her pictures could be enlarged with no loss of power.(3) Her gift is evident in what is likely her best-known photograph, that of the immense Fort Peck Dam, for the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in November 1936. But her ability to confer a sense of monumentality was equally evident in the NBC photomural. At the time, it was the world’s largest: 160 feet in circumference, with images ten feet, eight inches high. The mural was executed in two sections, with the microphone image at the center of one and a picture of tubes at the center of the other, each flanked by pictures of other electronic components and transmission towers. The installation created a dynamic sequence suggestive of a cinematic montage, tracing the movement of the radio signal from recording microphone through transmission to loudspeakers.

The designs of several other images in the mural are based on repetition; for example, multiple components such as speaker elements are arranged in an almost abstract pattern. In contrast, the microphone picture provides a straightforward record of functional and symmetrical— if oddly intricate—geometry, emphasizing the prominent NBC logo, complete with lightning bolts. Yet for all its directness and simplicity, the image also reveals Bourke-White’s subtlety and skill: the rays of light fanning out in the background provide contrast while adding visual flair.

Bourke-White began her career by specializing in photographs of modern industry—specifically, the steel mills of Cleveland, with their powerful architecture and dramatic displays of fire and molten metal. Later, she became known as a photojournalist, recording the horrors of war and the plight of the impoverished. She also took memorable pictures of world figures such as Gandhi.

The NBC photomural reflected the transition from the industrial revolution to the rise of electronic media. It also offered a fitting tribute from one modern medium to another, a visual homage to the power of sound. Although that early moment in the electronic age may seem, like the microphone itself, almost quaint, this photograph remains an indelible expression of Bourke-White’s ability to create images that display a modern sense of beauty.

--Robert Silberman
Associate Professor of Art History
University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus

1. Bourke-White diary, May 11, 1928, quoted in Vicki Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987), 89.
2. Bourke-White, “Color Photography in Advertising,” speech to New York Times Advertising Club, February 16, 1934, quoted in Melissa A. McEuen, Seeing America: Women Photographers between the Wars (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 227.
3. Stieglitz quoted in Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White, 143.