During a career of almost 50 years, photographer A. Aubrey Bodine became famous in Maryland through his photographs in The Sun and built an international reputation as well. He was known as a pictorialist, dramatizing and even romanticizing his subject matter, creating a Maryland that we Marylanders loved because it was beter than the real thing.
There is no trash on the streets of "Marble Steps" (1954); the "79-Year-Old Farmer" (1952) is no drudge but a proud countryman whose visage speaks of the nobility of his calling. No wonder we loved Bodine; he gave us, to borrow an advertising phrase, something to believe in.
The term "pictorialist," however, can connote, to some, all mushy mood. One of the most satisfying aspects of Bodine's work stems from his strong sense of abstract design. It can be sensed in the pleasingly asymmetrical compositions of most of his pictures, but at times it could also come to the fore as an end in itself. He photographed a zebra so close up and printed it in such high contrast that the result was distinctly op-artish. The fence around a snow-covered pond and a nearby tree become not a fence and a tree but two abstract shapes in a composition so successful it entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Barn roofs became a series of interrelated, geometric-shaped planes.
With one or two exceptions, the most abstract of Bodine's images are missing from this large exhibit of 78 of his works, and their absence means that newcomers to Bodine will largely miss the toughest, most modern aspect of his work.
In a way, the other extreme is missing as well. The prints here are 11-by-14 glossies rather than matte-finish, large-format salon prints that tend to emphasize the romantic aspect of the image.
So the Bodine that comes through this show is perhaps a more straightforward, less complex figure than we might have been shown. What we have, though, is in a sense just as valuable. By not emphasizing aesthetic matters (whether of abstraction or of pictorialism) for their own sake, the exhibit highlights the Bodine that those who remember him knew: the working photographer who made the most of the material at hand.
People may think of Bodine as an art photographer who spent his time looking for and making the perfect photograph. He did spend time doing that, but he was a newspaper photographer to the last day of his life -- literally: He fell ill at work and died a few hours later, 20 years and 12 days ago. Many of his memorable images came either from some particular assignment or from something Bodine noticed when on assignment.
UMBC curator of photography Tom Beck is thus entirely correct when he states in the introduction to the show's catalog that "a full understanding of Bodine's photographs requires appreciation of the combination of the artistic and the journalistic sides of his work. On the one hand, he invented his images, and on the other, he based them squarely on reality."
If Bodine's Maryland was better than the real thing, we could nevertheless identify with it because it wasn't simply a fiction. It was the real thing raised to another plane. The Bodine this show gives us is the Bodine whose work reflected the life we would have liked to know, and maybe would have if only we'd seen it through his eyes -- as, for moments, we could and still can.
A. Aubrey Bodine
When: Mondays through Thursdays 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays noon to 6 p.m., Sundays noon to 9 p.m., through Jan. 6.
Where: Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County.