Baltimore's pictorial photojournalist A. Aubrey Bodine became world-renowned for images he created of Maryland, and Marylanders believed in the image of Maryland he created.
His photographs, taken over a half-century, portray a romanticized land of pleasant living, with vistas that stretch on forever into blue skies filled with sculptural clouds, where watermen and farmers bring forth bounteous harvests from the Chesapeake Bay and the fertile farmland of Western Maryland. His steelworkers seem almost heroic, feeding a Bessemer furnace at Sparrows Point, and his longshoremen on Baltimore's docks could be figures in an ancient Greek frieze.
He loved the rolling vistas of Garrett County and the skipjacks on the bay, foggy nights on Baltimore streets and the harbor lit by the moon, a barbershop in Fells Point and the Choptank River from the air, great Tidewater mansions and Highlandtown rowhouses with white marble steps.
"In Baltimore, people just loved Bodine's pictures," says Tom Beck, the chief curator of the Albin O. Kuhn Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a specialist in photography. "In a sense, it's as though he invented our cherished image of Maryland as he followed his own aesthetic approach to photography."
On the one hand, Beck says, Bodine was a photojournalist, working for a newspaper. "But on the other hand,' he says, "his imagery was largely invented. That is, he added clouds. He added mood. He altered and added effects to imagery. But this pictorial aesthetic was precisely what people adored him for."
The home for that aesthetic for more than five decades was The Sun, where Bodine worked from Aug. 29, 1920, to his death on Oct. 28, 1970. Now, a new edition of his photographs from those years, Bodine's Chesapeake Bay Country, selected by his daughter, Jennifer Bodine, has just been released by Tidewater Publishers. The new book offers a chance to revisit the vision of his home state that her father conjured up for generations of Marylanders.
For 43 years of his career, Bodine was a photographer for the Sunday Sun, including two decades working for the sepia-colored photogravure "brown section," and later for the Sun Magazine.
"To a Marylander," wrote the late Harold A. Williams, Bodine's editor at the magazine for 25 years, "the name Bodine conjured up a vision of a beautiful picture, and a beautiful picture of Maryland was instantly associated with Bodine. The byline 'A. Aubrey Bodine,' with the possible exception of the byline 'H. L. Mencken,' became the best-known in the history of The Sun."
Bodine spent his life in pursuit of beauty, Beck says, and he found it in Maryland. But it was a very personal and selective Maryland.
"In truth," Beck says, "it was the aesthetic touches he added to them that made the imagery so adorable. In that sense it's an invented Maryland, because the images are a lot like paintings - not entirely truth, but based on enough truth that people wanted to believe this romantic vision of his."
Jennifer Bodine lives with her husband, Richard Orban, in an Eastern Shore setting that her father might have chosen to picture: a charming and sturdy house perched on the Caroline County bank of the Choptank River. Once a week for four years, she journeyed up to Baltimore to scour The Sun's photo archives, seeking images by her father to include in the new book.
About two dozen of the 286 photographs in the book are pictures that she found during her weekend explorations of the paper's archives, many images unpublished since they first appeared in the newspaper.
"Some of the pictures I found were, I thought, absolutely staggering," she says. She identified some only by her father's handwriting on the back. "I came across pictures I had never seen before that were absolutely fabulous."
The striking 1936 photo titled Wholesale Poultry Houses on South Charles Street was one. It shows chickens in crates stacked on the sidewalk a few blocks from the center of the city. Another photo, the Boxbutte from 1930, pictures an old wooden vessel beached at Locust Point and slowly disintegrating. Tobacco Hogsheads, from 1932, shows huge casks of new tobacco being rolled into a warehouse at Charles and Conway streets, a site that is now a big parking lot.
"They're some of the . . . treasures that I found that I had no idea existed," Bodine says.
Other images in the new book are more familiar. They've appeared in previous collections, and were obviously favorites of her father's.
Some, she says, "were big salon winners, for example." In a kind of bridging of art and action, Bodine was a fellow of both the Photographic Society of America and the National Press Photographers Association. He was a charter member of both organizations.
Richard Orban shows a visitor a journal of the Photographic Society shows Bodine entered.
"P.S.A. sponsored these salon exhibitions," Orban explains. "They wanted to raise photography to the level of an art form. He was accepted in over 800 salons. There was competition to get in. Then he would win. He won over 1,000 awards in salon competitions."
In his attic, Orban says, are 800 catalogs from PSA salons. "It's a 50-year snapshot of the greatest photographers in the world," he says. "And [Bodine] held his own in this competition."
Bodine's Oyster Dredgers won prizes in Singapore, Bordeaux, Hong Kong, Cuba and Lisbon. His photos of Baltimore dock workers won praise in the Soviet Union.
"He was one of the 10 best photographers of the 20th century," Orban says, with unbounded enthusiasm.
He was a pictorialist
"He's one of the greats," Beck agrees. "He came along in the second generation of pictorial photographers."
Pictorialists wanted their photographs to look like paintings. Bodine remained essentially a pictorialist, even when a new generation of "straight" photographers was already asserting that photography was an art in its own right.
"I don't think he began to get the attention he richly deserved until the 1970s, '80s," Beck says.
Not until Kathleen Ewing, a Washington gallery owner, took Bodine seriously as an artist in her 1996 Johns Hopkins University Press book, A. Aubrey Bodine: Baltimore Pictorialist.
"The art world began to look at Bodine's work with a more aesthetic eye," Beck says. "They're magnificent works of this pictorial style of photography. People, I think, still adore them for that quality."
In the new book, Jennifer Bodine also publishes an eclectic selection of pictures from her own collection of several thousand of her father's photos - like The Block, which shows a well-tattooed tattooist with a customer getting "God Bless America" tattooed on his right arm.
"I love that picture, the kind of Diane Arbus [quality]," Bodine says. "He was a pictorialist but he did everything."
Her new book also includes "the pictures that have been runaway best-sellers in our business," Bodine says, referring to the prints of her father's work for sale online at AAubreyBodine.com. Among them is Wash Day, a picture of people washing their white marble steps on a block of rowhouses.
"We sell that everywhere," she says. "It's like people are looking for an image of Baltimore and that's the one they chose."
Lost in another time
Nowadays, of course, washing white marble steps may be a Baltimore image that's more illusion than reality.
Like Wash Day, many Bodine's photos are today thickly coated with a patina of nostalgia. The images collected in the new book seem to depict a world lost in another time: steam engines, horse-drawn plows and hay wagons, gas lamps, Memorial Stadium, Smith's bookstore, the Betsy Patterson bakeshop, nickel coffee, long rows of corn shocks, Chesapeake Bay liners and the Wye Oak.
The photo of a Gothic mortuary chapel rising from a hillside of gravestones at Green Mount Cemetery is one of Bodine's most famous.
"I like to wander through old cemeteries," he writes in the preface borrowed from an earlier book. "This picture of Green Mount won a national award. I used the prize money to help buy one of the few remaining lots in the old section, where any type of marker is acceptable. If I want to put up an iron tripod and camera on my lot, I may."
Bodine is buried there. No iron tripod and camera mark his grave. But his tombstone is engraved with the image of a camera lens.