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Meet 'Maggie the Indestructible,' the Woman who Shot the First Cover Story for LIFE Magazine

Photographer Margaret Bourke White’s coworkers called her “Maggie the Indestructible” because she often risked her life—and came out fighting—for powerful photos. She was stranded in the arctic and survived a helicopter crash in the Chesapeake Bay, among other adventures. In 1930. she was the first Western photographer officially allowed in the USSR, and she was the first accredited American woman photographer in WWII. 

Because of her regular courage and ability to get the story, Bourke White became one of LIFE Magazine’s four original staff photographers. When the magazine’s first issue launched on November 23, 1936, the cover presented her photo. It was a shadow-filled image of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam, at the time the world’s largest earth-filled dam and a symbol of development spurred in FDR’s New Deal. Inside the magazine, the story continued with Bourke White’s photos of new Montana settlers—be they construction workers, engineers, or “fancy ladies.” 

Margaret Bourke White with the photo she took for the first issue of LIFE, circa 1955.

LIFE Magazine was TIME Magazine’s counterpart, the magazine that showed the news rather than telling it with photo-heavy content that reflected the times. At its height, Life’s circulation reached over 8 million people. In her 1963 autobiography Portrait of Myself, Bourke White wrote about her time at the mag: “The world was full of discoveries waiting to be made. I felt very fortunate that I had an outlet, such an exceptional outlet, perhaps the only one of this kind in the world at that time, through which I could share the things I saw and learned.”

For a look back through some of LIFE’s other covers, click through the gallery above.