The aerial photography of Margaret Bourke-White on the Volturno Valley

"“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance." Charles Lindbergh


"Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance." Charles Lindbergh

Cultural Documents are researching the images of Margaret Bourke-White as part of a programme. It uses historic and contemporary art and documentary photography as a means of rendering the tangible story of the source and territory surrounding the Volturno River in Molise, Italy.

Since 1850, this area has been deeply affected by four factors: labour-motivated migration which has cost many communities depopulation of over 70% in the last 100 years; occupation and sustained conflict of WWII during 1943 and 1944 which decimated terrain, architecture and community spirit; the formation of the new, autonomous region of Molise in 1963, and the earthquake of May 1984 which stifled development of the area in a complex and prolonged bureaucratic process.

Since 2006, as Director of Cultural Documents (and a descendent of the territory myself) I been working with architectural restoration experts Teresa and Antonio Buono, based in the village of Filignano and nearby Roman town Venafro. Our aim is to find historical evidence, to validate the rich story of the people of the area, and to mediate careful consideration of how to manage future productivity, conservation and ownership in this green and abundant natural landscape.

The research has currently led me to state archives in Australia, France, Italy, the UK and the USA, where I discovered an overlooked file of images by the trail-blazing photographer Margaret Bourke-White (USA 1904-71). She pioneered aerial photography in her work as war correspondent, author and photojournalist. Her iconic photographic images are acknowledged worldwide as representing the spirit of many key historical events of the twentieth century. Among her many achievements, she was the first American female war correspondent, the first foreigner permitted to photograph Soviet industry, her photography used for the first edition front cover of Life magazine. She authored more than ten books and received numerous awards over her career, including honorary doctorates from Rutgers University and the University of Michigan, USA.

In 1943 and 1944 the US Army posted Bourke-White to the upper Volturno Valley in Molise. She documented the war effort, and chronicled the daily experiences of the Allied troops working to replace the bombed-out bridges and roadways, which provided medical, food and munitions supplies to the soldiers on the front-line. Flying back and forth around the Volturno, Bourke-White created a unique and visually stunning archive of images, which record the minute detail of everyday civilian life attempting to thrive in the midst of sustained, intense military conflict.

Working closely with Syracuse University and Time Inc. in the USA and the continued sponsorship and expertise of Teresa and Antonio Buono in Molise, I am undertaking the first deep research into the Bourke-White archive. The first public exhibition of the archive will open in Italy in 2018 and Deirdre will present a series of new images ‘dall alto' in order to re-trace the routes Bourke-White took.

Photo-historian and artist Lachlan Young has been working with Cultural Documents to identify the cameras, lenses and film formats which Bourke-White used to capture the stunning images, and comments: "Margaret Bourke-White's equipment choices were essentially those of a mid-20th Century news photographer/photojournalist - they weren't radical or new in the way that Robert Capa's use of 35mm was. The use of larger formats was dictated by a need for a high quality negative, which could be radically cropped if necessary.

One image in the archive shows a Graflex Series B SLR with a long telephoto (looks a lot like a Dallmeyer), a Linhof Technika II with a long lens (on the tallest tripod) and a Graflex Speed Graphic. Other images suggest that she also used 120 roll film in a Rolleiflex."

Located less than two hours from Rome and Naples, Molise is home to a diaspora of people spread throughout the world yet it retains traditional values: a strong sense of community and connectedness with the land. The ‘chilometro zero' philosophy is a new name for an ancient way of life to cherish the natural goodness of clean air and soil and the abundance they produce.

Today, deep inside the forests, a revolution is going on; working alongside the commercial forestry operators and under the watchful eye of the Corpo Forestale, groups of voluntary conservation workers are reclaiming hundreds of kilometres of ancient dry-stone roadways and pathways to open up the hidden gems of a landscape protected by the last seventy years…