In Dad's Honor

Daughter of the late A. Aubrey Bodine is protective of the photography that defined -- and consumed -- her father

April 06, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Reporter

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.

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