A lifetime of pictures by Baltimore’s A. Aubrey Bodine goes on sale

November 18, 2011

A.Aubrey Bodine made Baltimore look like a Hollywood gal. Not a knockout, not a star. But a handsome girl from back East with excellent bones and good breeding, dressed up with professional help.

Bodine’s black-and-white photographs from the 1920s through the 1960s show a Baltimore of clean streets, nice monuments, dignified and often solitary workers, few children, beautiful skies. The skin is scrubbed and the pores closed, and the pictures have a light that, you tell yourself, you’ve seen only a couple of times.

Bodine (1906-1970) worked at the Baltimore Sun for exactly 50 years. He was a little like H.L. Mencken, a colleague of his for much of that time. They were both world-class, dirt-under-the-fingernails artists whose national reputations haven’t lasted. Although they’re still easy to appreciate, they’re mostly appreciated at home.

On Saturday, 7,132 images by Bodine will be auctioned in Towson, just north of Baltimore. The pictures are the product of his entire career as a features photographer at the newspaper. The sale is a way for the Sun, cash-strapped and owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., to make money. Pre-sale estimates by Alex Cooper Auctioneers suggest that the auction could take in $300,000.

Bodine’s photographs, especially the 16-by-20-inch “exhibition prints” made on his own time from work assignments, have trickled out over the decades. Depending on what they depict, those art prints command prices from the low hundreds to the low thousands. Saturday’s download is utterly different, and not just in volume. It’s an odd mixture of Bodine’s visual reserve and the urgency of daily journalism.

“Normally we’ll sell six to a dozen Bodines a year,” said Brian Cooper, the 52-year-old director of the auction house’s antiques division. “There’s never been working prints on the market. I have no idea if they will bring more or less. But I can tell you there’s been a lot of excitement.”

The prints, all but 30 unsigned, have crop marks made by decades of photo editors wielding grease pencils. Many are dinged up; they’ve been used a lot. Nearly all are stamped “The Baltimore Sun” on the back. Sometimes there’s a caption in yellowed newsprint cut and glued on. Many have information — just enough for the copy editors to write cutlines — written in Bodine’s hand.

They are being sold in lots, with price estimates ranging from $100 to $600. Although a few lots are single pictures, most have about 15 prints and some have dozens, grouped by theme.

Maryland of yesterday

A favorite subject is Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s Beacon Hill-like neighborhood. One of Bodine’s best-known pictures is a time-lapse record of a lunar eclipse over the Washington Monument there. There are lots of pictures of rowhouses, marble steps and city blocks, including West Baltimore’s Wilkens Avenue with its longest run of attached dwellings (52) in the United States. There are smoke-belching ships in the harbor; overhead views of train yards; and the occasional factory worker in a slightly socialist-realist pose. There are Western Maryland hayfields at daybreak, Eastern Shore oyster shuckers, skipjacks under sail and images of the half-built Chesapeake Bay Bridge at sunset.

Bodine used a 4-by-5-inch Speed Graphic and often a larger 5-by-7 format camera. His photographs appeared mostly in the Sun’s Sunday magazine. He didn’t cover double murders, campaign stops or baseball games. Many of his human subjects are posed, and the pictures are to some extent darkroom creations. He used more artifice than would be tolerated in today’s newsrooms.

“He had a ‘sky file,’ ” his only child, Jennifer Bodine, 63, recalled this week. “My parents once took a two-week vacation in Nova Scotia, the sole purpose of which was to photograph clouds.”

By using multiple negatives in the darkroom and masking out parts he didn’t want to print, Bodine could put a different or more dramatic sky into a picture. A discerning viewer, she said, can identify the same clouds in pictures taken miles and years apart — the product of an artisanal ancestor of Photoshop.

No opportunity wasted

Bodine came to photography by chance.

His father, in his 50s when Bodine was born, could not adequately support the family. Bodine’s two younger siblings were sent to live with relatives in Florida and, at 14, Bodine left school to work. A family friend found him a job at the Sun, where he was a messenger boy for the commercial art department. At 18, he started taking pictures for advertisements — automobiles, shoes, hats — using techniques of lighting and posing that stayed with him. Three years later, he moved to features.

Very little else interested him, which sometimes made him difficult. Jennifer Bodine recalled a winter night when her father rushed her outside to hold lights so he could get images of falling snow, which he would later add to other pictures. She can still feel the snow filling her open collar and trickling down her back.

“He never let a blizzard go to waste. Thank goodness we didn’t live in Kansas, or we would have gone out in tornadoes,” she said.

One morning in 1970, Bodine’s photo department colleagues heard a crash in the darkroom. They found him unconscious on the floor. He died a few hours later of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The Sun has digitized the Bodine archive; a vice president didn’t want to answer questions about the decision to sell it. Jennifer Bodine has her own Web site and sells signed exhibition prints. One might expect she’d be unhappy with a flood of 7,000 pictures on the market. But she says she isn’t.

“My father loved the Sun,” she said. “If he thought for a moment that this sale would keep their lights on and another reporter on the job, he’d be thrilled.”

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