Bodine, BMA involved in feud over art exhibit

The Baltimore Sun

The daughter of the late A. Aubrey Bodine, who became one of the country's best-known pictorial journalists during his 50-year career at The Sun, is protesting an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art that fails to include her father among photography's pioneering figures.

Jennifer B. Bodine, of Denton on the Eastern Shore, where the photographer snapped many of his most famous images, appealed to BMA trustees last week to overrule a curator's decision not to show her father's work, arguing that "Bodine has earned his rightful place alongside [Alfred] Stieglitz and other groundbreaking photographers who turned photography into an art form."

Museum officials don't dispute Bodine's importance -- the BMA has honored the artist with three solo exhibits -- but contend that works by other artists were a better fit for the historical scheme of the current show, Looking Through the Lens: Photography 1900-1960. The exhibition surveys major developments in the medium during the first half of the 20th century.

"We rely on our curatorial staff with the appropriate training and experience to make these kinds of important artistic decisions," says BMA director Doreen Bolger. "Our job can't be to show the work of every artist, but rather to set a standard for this community, which has many wonderful artists in it."

The BMA owns 19 vintage prints by Bodine. In previous exhibitions devoted to the artist, it has drawn from both its own holdings and loans from other institutions.

In an interview this week, Jennifer Bodine said that while she appreciates the recognition the BMA accorded her father in the past, his exclusion from the current exhibition diminishes his stature as a major photographic pioneer.

"My point is he should be seen alongside the big guys," Jennifer Bodine says. "What the exhibit says is that Bodine was not a worthy pictorial photojournalist," she added. "That's what's kicked me the hardest, and this in his own hometown. Wasn't there one tiny spot that could have been made for him?"

Yet even partisans of Baltimore artists concede that Bodine, though extremely popular in his day, may not have been an innovator on the order of Stieglitz, Edward Weston or Ansel Adams.

"My sense is that the BMA show is about progressive work, and Bodine wasn't really viewed as a progressive," says Megan Hamilton, program director at the Creative Alliance and author of a history of the local arts scene. "On the other hand, I think the museum has been doing a lot with the local arts community recently."

Bodine, who was born in 1906 and died in 1970, spent virtually his entire career in Baltimore. From the 1920s onward, his work appeared regularly in the pages of The Sun's rotogravure Sunday picture supplement. During his half-century career, Bodine published four major volumes of photographs based on Maryland and Virginia subjects, and he was particularly well-known for his atmospheric maritime views of the Chesapeake Bay.

But Rena Hoisington, the BMA curator who chose the more than 160 images in the show, said putting the current exhibition together involved making "tough" choices.

"I wanted to choose innovators and pioneers," says Hoisington, who worked at several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before coming to the BMA three years ago. "What's tricky about Bodine's work is that a lot of it came later, so he didn't really fit into the chronology of the exhibition."

Bodine worked in a style called Pictorialism, which had its heyday in America around the turn of the century. Pictorialists sought to elevate photography's status as art by creating photographs that imitated the look of paintings. But by the late 1920s, when Bodine launched his career, Pictorialism had been superseded by more recent developments. The section of the BMA show devoted to Pictorialism includes only four examples of the style, and all of them date from the first few years of the 20th century.

That explanation didn't satisfy Jennifer Bodine, however. Told in January that her father's work would not appear in the show, she fired off a lengthy rebuttal to the museum cataloging the photographer's many exhibitions, honors and awards. When that failed to produce results, she wrote to the museum's trustees and warned, "I will not be silenced. I am my father's only voice."

The dispute escalated from there, with the museum declining to reconsider its decision while seeking to placate Bodine as her demands became more insistent. To some extent, the clash between Bodine's daughter and the BMA reflects changing scholarly assessments of Bodine's place in history. Yet his pictures remain immensely popular. "I want to put it in the public domain," she says. "The fame he deserves can only come through serious promotion, and I want him to be thought of as a Man Ray or an [Edward] Steichen. All his life he decided to stay local, and that was his call. Now it's my job to kick him out into the larger world."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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