Fort Peck Dam

Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White

To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by LIFE.

Henry R. Luce

Fort Peck Dam

  • Margaret Bourke-White
  • 1936

It was to quickly become the most influential news and photography magazine of its time, and LIFE’s ­November 1936 debut issue proudly announced that it would cover stories of enormous scope and complexity in a uniquely visual way. What better person, thought publisher Henry Luce, than his Fortune magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White to shoot LIFE’s premier story, on the construction of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam? There, on the cover with the castle-like structure and a photo essay inside, Bourke-White used pictures to give a human feel to an article on the world’s largest earth-filled dam. She did this by focusing not only on the technical challenges of the massive New Deal project in the Missouri River Basin but also on the Wild West vibe in “the whole ramshackle town,” a place “stuffed to the seams with construction men, engineers, welders, quack doctors, barmaids, fancy ladies.” Bourke-White’s cover became the defining image of the magazine that helped define a style of photojournalism and set the tone for the other great LIFE photographers who followed her. As her colleague Carl Mydans, the great war photojournalist, put it, Bourke-White’s influence “was incalculable.” 

See Margaret Bourke-White's photo on the cover of the first LIFE

See a telegram from Bourke-White on assignment

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