“The Photography of A. Aubrey Bodine” will be displayed at The Ward Museum in Salisbury July 13-September 30
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, Sunday mornings in our Baltimore home always meant a race to the front porch for the Sunday Sun newspaper. But it wasn’t the comics, the women’s section or the sports section we grabbed for first: It was The Sunday Sun Magazine. We knew that each and every week, on both the cover and centerfold, there would be new and wonderful photographs waiting for us by Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine.
His photographs were superbly reproduced in the Sunday magazine’s “brown section,” which was so nicknamed for its fine rotogravure printing process. This gave him the good fortune not only to have his photographs reproduced in an expensive fine-art printing method but also gave him an audience as wide as the Sunpapers’ reach.
Born in Baltimore in 1906, Bodine landed the Sun photography job because of what amounted to a lucky break. He had started as an office boy when he was just 14 but quickly learned his photographic skills on the job. After four years, when the commercial photographer for the newspaper literally blew himself up with photographic chemicals, Bodine was perfectly positioned to step into the job. In 1927, after the features photo-grapher for the newspaper was fired for “faking” a picture, Bodine, who was a master manipulator himself, quite ironically got the job and held it for the rest of his life.
It was more good fortune that Bodine’s photography assignments were for feature stories and not hard news. Though he was a dedicated newspaperman, Bodine was not a photojournalist in the truest sense, where even the slightest manipulation of the scene being shot or in the development of the photograph was strictly prohibited. He was instead a dedicated pictorialist, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and the aesthetic movement that dominated photography at the turn of the 20th century and turned it into an art form. To Bodine, a photograph was like a painting. He created an image as opposed to merely recording one. Bodine expertly used light and shadow, staged people and things, added clouds or removed poles and liked to shoot only at sunrise or sunset, when the light was good.
A true son of the Chesapeake, Bodine passionately photographed Maryland and her people, and many of his images have become iconic. His eye was drawn to the old things that were disappearing and to the beauty of the Maryland countryside — many of his landscape photographs resembling Flemish paintings in black-and-white. One of Bodine’s lasting legacies are his portraits of the working men and women of Maryland. From a working-class family himself, Bodine and his camera naturally gravitated to his subjects’ weather-beaten faces and hands, their disappearing traditions and the pride they had in their work. He captured profound moments in the lives of oyster harvesters, crab pickers, shark fishermen, dockworkers, water diviners, blacksmiths, Baltimore hucksters and Crisfield decoy carvers.
Bodine in his lifetime came to be internationally regarded as one of the finest pictorialists of the century. His pictures were exhibited in hundreds of prestigious shows and at such vanguard institutions as the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art. He won awards against top competition, including first prize in the 1949 Popular Photography contest (against more than 51,000 entries) and second prize the following year. Eventually, Bodine’s work was ubiquitous. In addition to the Sun, his photographs were seen in books, magazines, calendars and as pieces of art decorating many Maryland homes.
Cynthia Byrd, curator and folklorist at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, said that Bodine’s work interests her as both art and as a cultural and historical documentary source.
“Bodine was a household name on the Eastern Shore for many years,” she offered. “He showed an intrinsic respect for the working man and presents us with many iconic images of the people and traditions of Maryland.”
A. Aubrey Bodine died in 1970, when he suffered a stroke in his own Sun darkroom, yet his work is anything but forgotten. A 12-week exhibition of his original photographs opens on Friday July 13th at the Ward Museum, sponsored by Maryland Traditions, an agency of the Maryland State Arts Council. The show was curated by Bodine’s daughter and estate keeper, Jennifer Bodine, an Eastern Shore resident who selected many of her father’s best maritime pieces.
“He had a fascination with water,” she shared, “yet he couldn’t swim a stroke. He often went out on work boats in terrible weather conditions, lugging his 5x7-inch format-view camera and tripod, to find that one best place to take the perfect picture.”
Lora Bottinelli, Ward Museum Executive Director, believes that Bodine continues the museum’s mission of connecting art, nature and tradition.
“His photographs capture and celebrate what’s so special about our local places,” she said. “Bodine was a contemporary of Lem and Steve Ward, the wildfowl carvers who inspired our museum. The brothers worked in nature, then took their work to another level of beauty, to an inspirational place. Bodine and the Ward brothers created a lasting legacy of the Chesapeake region.”
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