Thursday 17 Apr 2014

Baltimore is Bodine’s City

Bodine City front cover

Jennifer Bodine believes her father, renowned photographer A. Aubrey Bodine (1906 – 1970), loved Baltimore. It was his city. “The photographs show his versatility and they are a tribute to Baltimore.

“All the Way Up.” Photo: A. Aubrey Bodine.

All of the images in Bodine’s City, a gorgeous book of 154 of his photographs, were taken within a four mile radius. “We lived in Mount Vernon, four blocks from the Sunpapers building,” added Jennifer Bodine.

“Bodine considered himself a newspaper man,” explained his daughter in the introduction to Bodine’s City. “But that is not accurate. A. Aubrey Bodine was an artist, first, last and always.”

Her father had an “artistic temperament. Art came beyond all else, which is typical of an artist. He didn’t fit ‘Dad,’” she said. Jennifer Bodine called her father, “Aldeen.”

Bodine’s young daughter is the focus of an award-winning photograph, “All the Way Up” (1951), which appears on page 88 in Bodine’s City. In it, Jennifer is a toddler, climbing the steps of the Washington Monument. Bodine took the photograph with a one dollar Brownie camera.

Green Mount Cemetery. Photo: A. Aubrey Bodine

“People wrote into the Sun, saying that his prints were so good because his cameras were so expensive,” Jennifer Bodine explained. Her father went into a pharmacy and bought a cheap camera just to prove them wrong. The result is a dramatic portrait of three-year-old Jennifer, her back to the camera, nearing the top of the deeply shadowed marble steps of the monument.

Published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. of Atglen, Pennsylvania, who contacted Jennifer Bodine with interest in her father’s work, Bodine’s City is one of a series. The next book of Bodine’s photographs will depict people at work.

The photographs in Bodine’s City are a mix of portraits and landscapes. They evoke a range of emotions. Anxiety is what I felt when I studied his 1958 photograph of Green Mount Cemetery on page 71. The cemetery’s brownstone chapel is a silhouette and the brightly lit tombstones, a sharp contrast. Except for the three graves in the foreground that are almost black. The photograph is artistically gloomy and frightening.

H.L. Mencken. Photo: A. Aubrey Bodine

It is the cemetery where A. Aubrey Bodine lies with other notable Baltimoreans such as Johns Hopkins, Sydney Lanier and Enoch Pratt.

“I hardly ever saw him before I was twelve years old,” Jennifer Bodine said of her father. A. Aubrey Bodine would be gone for two to three days at a stretch so that he could capture an image at dawn, perhaps, with just the right light.

“He dedicated his life to his work and it killed him,” she added.

The chemicals involved in the photo process were lethal, though it was in the darkroom that Bodine created his masterpieces. He often manipulated his photographs. According to Jennifer Bodine, her father “was a master toner. In Bodine’s era, changes to any photograph occurred in the darkroom at the printing stage and they were all done by hand. He painted and scratched his negatives. He double printed them, making pictures that were composites of different images.”

Jennifer Bodine. Photo: John Valentini

The images in Bodine’s City are all black and white because he did not process any of the color photos he took. He shot images in color later in his career for the advertisers in the Baltimore Sunday Sun.

Bodine’s portrait of H. L. Mencken, on page 48, was taken in 1933. It was a satisfying time in Mencken’s life and Bodine captured him in his apartment on Cathedral Street where he lived with his wife. Jennifer Bodine reported that her father was also one of a select group of Mencken’s friends whom he allowed to visit him after he had a devastating stroke in 1949.

“I have no memory of Henry,” she added. She does recall that her father would leave the house to visit Mencken on Tuesdays and that she was frightened when he was gone. Jennifer knew when her father was home, because his work room was directly under her bedroom.

“We had a long, narrow city house which had been broken into,” Jennifer Bodine said. “It was scary,” especially when her father was not home.

But his dedication to his photography was absolute, and it shows in Bodine’s City. “Every location had its own set of challenges,” his daughter writes in the introduction. “No assignment was beneath him.” He wanted to “do the common thing uncommonly.”

An exhibit of A. Aubrey Bodine’s work is scheduled for early November in the lobby of the World Trade Center in Baltimore. Bodine’s City is available from A. Aubrey Bodine’s website and is also available at Amazon.

About the author

Frequent WTBH contributor Caryn Coyle writes about arts, culture and food for the CBS Baltimore and has had fiction published in a dozen literary journals including Smile Hon You're In Baltimore, Gargoyle, JMWW, The Little Patuxent Review, Loch Raven Review, Midway Journal, The Journal (Santa Fe) and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She won the 2009 Maryland Writers Association Short Fiction Award, third prize in the first Delmarva Review Short Story Contest, 2011 and honorable mentions for her fiction from the Missouri Writer's Guild (2011) and the St. Louis Writer's Guild (2012).

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