|First LIFE magazine cover from 1936 with logo and photo of Fort Peck Dam's spillway by Margaret Bourke-White (© Margaret Bourke-White/TIMEPIX)|
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.
In her riveting 1963 autobiography, Portrait of Myself, Bourke-White herself recalls the heady experience working for LIFE:
“A few weeks before the beginning, Henry Luce called me up to his office and assigned me to a wonderful story out in the Northwest. Luce was very active editorially in the early days of the magazine, and there was always that extra spark in the air. Harry’s idea was to photograph the enormous chain of dams in the Columbia River basin that was part of the New Deal program. I was to stop off at New Deal, a settlement near Billings, Montana, where I would photograph the construction of Fort Peck, the world’s largest earth-filled dam. Henry told me to watch out for something on a grand scale that might make a cover.”
“These were the days of LIFE’s youth, and things were very informal. I woke up each morning ready for any surprise the day might bring. I loved the swift pace of the LIFE assignments, the exhilaration of stepping over the threshold into a new land. Everything could be conquered. Nothing was too difficult.”
One of LIFE magazine’s four original staff photographers, Bourke-White broke ground again and again throughout her career, notching notable assignments not only as the first woman photographer to accomplish this or that, but as the first photographer, period, to cover a variety of momentous events and key figures (heroic and heinous) the world over: in 1930, she was the first Western photographer officially allowed into the USSR; she was America’s first accredited woman photographer in WWII, and the very first authorized to fly on combat missions; she was one of the first (and certainly the most celebrated) of the photographers to document the horrors of Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated in the spring of 1945; she was the last person to interview Mohandas Gandhi before he was assassinated; and on and on.
(Photos by Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, via Headquarters U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and LIFE)