Myth Maker

Still Powerful, A. Aubrey Bodine's Much-loved Photographs Depict A Maryland That Only Might Have Existed.

Cover Story

September 18, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

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."

`Absolutely staggering'

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.

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