It was the defining portrait of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, but the picture almost didn’t happen. LIFE magazine’s first female photographer, Margaret Bourke-White was in India in 1946 to cover the impending Indian independence. She was all set to shoot when Gandhi’s secretaries stopped her: If she was going to photograph Gandhi at the spinning wheel (a symbol for India’s struggle for independence), she first had to learn to use one herself.
It was a rare photo-op and Bourke-White was not going to lose it. She learnt how to use the spinning wheel, but further demands followed–Gandhi wasn’t to be spoken to (it being his day of silence.) And because he detested bright light, Bourke-White was only allowed to use three flashbulbs. The humid Indian weather wreaked havoc on her camera equipment, too. She tried to take the picture without flash, but the bright Indian day hindered her further. [Less than stellar pictures can be seen here and here]
When time finally came to shoot, Bourke-White’s first flashbulb failed. And while the second one worked, she forgot to pull the slide, rendering it blank.She thought it was all over, but luckily, the third attempt was successful. In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation.
Bourke-White’s feature, titled “India’s Leaders,” ran in the May 27, 1946 issue of LIFE. More than a dozen of her pictures ran in the “Leaders” article, but only two were of Gandhi, and neither of them was the spinning-wheel picture. The spinning-wheel picture appeared in LIFE months later — as a small image atop an article in June 1946 talking about Gandhi’s fascination with “nature cures” for the sick. The famous picture was only widely seen when in February 1948, the photograph was given pride of place in a multiple-page tribute to Gandhi published immediately after his assassination, filling a half-page atop the article, “India Loses Her ‘Great Soul.”