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IN DAD'S HONOR

The Baltimore Sun

Jennifer B. Bodine was in her last semester at Roland Park Country School, struggling academically as graduation loomed. She realized that she probably should have kept her mouth shut.

This was the 1960s, when seniors there had a little-known tradition. Every spring, they chose a day to strip their school uniforms, set them ablaze in a trash can, and romp around, at times in their underwear, to celebrate impending freedom.

"Why I mentioned this [at home], I'll never know," she said last week, shaking her head.

She hoped that her father, the Baltimore photographic legend A. Aubrey Bodine, would forget, but that wouldn't have been like him. He arrived as the first dress began to smolder, took his shots, and motored off without saying a word. A picture -- with a coquettishly defiant Jennifer smack in the middle -- ran in The Sun on Sunday.

In spite of the newspaper photo, she graduated.

The man she still calls simply "Bodine" died in 1970, leaving his daughter the copyright to the roughly 50,000 photographs he made in his career, but she inherited more than his work.

The 59-year-old nonpracticing attorney sees herself, in many ways, as quite different from the father she describes as often distant and consumed by his craft. But in a recent dispute with the Baltimore Museum of Art over omission of his work from a new show on photography, she, like her dad, hasn't shied from expressing herself and defending his work quite forcefully.

"We're talking about folks with Ph.D.s from Ivy League institutions," she says of curators who failed to include any of her father's images in Looking Through the Lens: Photography 1900-1960, a survey of major developments in photography during the first half of the 20th century. "Who says being educated means you can't make stupid decisions?"

Museum officials feel it's important that they maintain control over curatorial decisions. To Bodine, however, her father simply "belongs up there with the big boys," those who helped define the art form, from pictorialist Edward Stieglitz to photojournalist Dorothea Lange. She sent the BMA a series of stinging e-mails that, among other things, asked curators to her home to see more Bodines and reconsider; challenged the credentials of the exhibition's curator, Rena Hoisington, and forced the whole debate into a meeting of the Board of Trustees last month.

"I've educated myself as to the politics of curators," she says. "It's straight out of the Medici. These people work in secret, and they aren't accustomed to being challenged."

Bodine, she says, would have backed her all the way.

Country boy

Aldine Aubrey Bodine was born in Baltimore in 1906. His family moved to the country, where he wandered the creeks and hillsides. Jennifer Bodine thinks the sights made a deep impression.

He left school at 14 and became a messenger at The Sun, then a gofer in the art department. His job was to fill the ink bottles of artists and file their drawings. If he didn't like one, he threw it in the trash, his daughter said.

He liked the brash talk of Sun photographers, borrowed their cameras and took pictures in the streets. An image he made of the aqueduct at the town of Relay was published and led to his being hired as a staff photographer at age 21. For the next half-century, Bodine's black-and-whites of watermen and farmhands, marble steps and monuments, defined Maryland in the public mind.

His longtime editor and friend, Hal Williams, says Bodine sought fame but also to elevate photography to the level of art. He entered more than 800 salon competitions, winning awards from Cuba, Singapore and France among the hundreds he accumulated. He taught and lectured, judged competitions and published four books.

He did just about everything but get rich. Bodine spurned offers from Life magazine, Williams wrote, and a corporate gig from Ford. The Sun, says Jennifer, gave her father a unique platform: the centerpiece in its innovative Sunday magazine, the "brown section," so nicknamed because of its sepia tone.

"He was a newspaper photographer," says Tom Beck, chief curator of the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, "but one who truly created art."

Starting in the 1930s, Bodine drove 30,000 miles a year, shot pictures Monday through Friday, and processed his work on weekends in The Sun darkroom. As exhibitions loomed, he did drying at home, clogging up the only bathroom at 805 Park Ave. "It's all he ever did," Jennifer says.

She was aware he was someone special. Strangers treated her like royalty. She attended private school, thanks to proceeds from his books, and although her friends' parents were wary of the Bodines' rough neighborhood (she carried a knife in her purse on the No. 10 bus), they let their kids visit because of her famous dad.

Bodine smoked corncob pipes, wore tailored shirts and tattersall vests and sported a bright-green silk suit that caused Jennifer to walk several feet behind him out of embarrassment.

He was also a man of many pet hates, his editor wrote in a magazine The Sun produced when he died.

"It would be impossible to list them all for reasons of space, propriety and the possibility of libel," as Williams put it. "But here is a sampler, not necessarily in the order of his animosity: the Red Cross, Formstone, baked potatoes in tinfoil jackets, liberals, exposure meters ... Howard Johnson restaurants, long pencils, architects, pie that was cut in more than four slices, race horses, editorial writers, ... plastic, [and] the National Safety Council."

He kept his equipment in his two-door Ford Galaxie and stopped when he saw a good subject. "I missed all but the last 10 minutes of so many birthday parties," she says.

When Jennifer started dating, he put all her suitors in the same category. "The rapist is here," he'd tell her mother, Nancy, when one arrived.

During a rough patch in her parents' marriage, Jennifer dropped from the honor roll to last in her class, threatening her high school graduation. Bodine, a sometime heavy drinker, never discussed it with her. "He liked things to work out on their own," she says.

Despite a childhood she describes as "totally off the rails," she adored Bodine -- even when, at 64, he challenged her decision to go to law school.

"You're a girl," he said. "Juries won't take you seriously! You'll become a lawyer over my dead body."

"So be it," she snapped.

A few days later, as he worked in The Sun's darkroom, he collapsed on the floor, felled by a stroke. Six hours later, he was gone.

Web site launched

Bodine practiced law for a few years, quitting only when the stress started giving her nausea. After that, she made and sold stained glass, much of which she displays in the home on the Choptank River she shares with her husband, Web entrepreneur Richard Orban. In 1999, when Maryland Public Television announced it was producing a documentary on six Chesapeake Bay artists, including Bodine, Orban started scanning the family collection and putting it online.

Over the past nine years, they've corralled, touched up, digitized, organized and printed thousands of Bodines, many of them not seen publicly in years. AAubrey Bodine.com, the Web site that catalogues and disseminates his work for sale, has become a lucrative business.

Upon the photographer's death, the family lacked the time or the money to promote his work -- a benefit without which few photographic artists end up enjoying the sort of international stature Bodine and Orban, a photographer's son, say he merits.

In 2000, 35 regional retailers sold Bodine images; today, more than 270 do. The company has turned 180 Bodines into notecards (available on the Web site at $2.50 apiece) and sold more than 10,000 made-to-order prints (between $19.99 and $99.99 apiece).

During that time, according to Beck, the UMBC curator, an art-history community that once saw Bodine as a talented regional hero has begun reassessing his artistic stature. Last fall, Black and White, a fine photographic art magazine, ran a Bodine spread that proclaimed him a "pictorialist master." Bodines hang at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

For his version of Pictorialism -- a movement born in the 1880s that sought to infuse photography with "painterly" elements -- he used techniques that were as evocative as they were controversial within journalism. He kept files of cloud and moon images, for example, often adding them to realistic landscapes for dramatic effect. Some questioned the method.

"I have as much right to do that as a writer does to use adjectives," he once said.

For Jennifer, becoming custodian of his legacy has sparked memories. As a kid, she thought the Farmer's Almanac in the family kitchen was for her benefit to know the weather for school; Bodine, rather, hung it up and used it to forecast light and tidal conditions. Her father, she says, suffered constant headaches and always had brown-stained hands and fingernails -- signs, she is sure, of chronic chemical poisoning.

A man she says rarely had the time to speak with her is, in a way, doing so now. "Not in a looney-tunes way," she says. "But more and more, I feel him guiding me."

Last winter, friends of Bodine who keep tabs on local exhibitions told her of planning for Looking Through the Lens. She left a phone message for curator Hoisington, asking whether her father would be included. When no return call came, Bodine sent a follow-up e-mail posing the same question. The reply didn't please her.

"In my father's day and age," she says of the man who often got the city to move light poles to accommodate his work, excluding "Bodine would have been unthinkable."

The museum, says director Doreen Bolger, is in no way saying A. Aubrey Bodine wasn't important. It's just that curators -- "those who have trained their whole lives in making these difficult decisions" -- didn't see his work as fitting the theme of this exhibition.

"What remains constant is that he created fine work, and thanks to his daughter, it's becoming better known, as it should be," she says. "We've had three one-person Bodine shows. ... We judge independently each time. There'll be other exhibitions."

"They have all these categories and can't find room for one measly Bodine?" his daughter counters. "To imply that he wasn't a pioneer is beyond preposterous. It's humiliating."

The dispute eventually made its way to the BMA's board of trustees, which two days after the show opened on March 16, voted unanimously to support the curator's selections.

"Will I donate another Bodine to those people?" she says. "Over my dead body.

"My father wasn't a touchy-feely man," she adds. "I can't say I have a lot of warm, fond memories of him. But if I didn't love him, I wouldn't be dedicating my life to preserving his memory and his gift to humankind. He and I are one spirit and soul."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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