A. Aubrey Bodine has been dead for a decade and a half and his name seems not to be so widely known as it was for most of his lifetime. That is a pity, for he was a photographer of quite amazing gifts and accomplishments, but perhaps it will be rectified with the appearance of this exceptionally handsome and informative book. It contains 68 photographs, a representative sample of Bodine's work, along with an intelligent commentary by Kathleen Ewing, the owner of a Washington art gallery, and a reminiscence by Harold Williams, who for three decades worked with Bodine on the Baltimore Sun.
That newspaper was Bodine's employer for half a century, beginning in 1920 when he joined it as a messenger at the age of 14; he died, appropriately enough, in his darkroom at The Sun. The overwhelming majority of his pictures originally appeared in the newspaper, yet strictly speaking he was not a newspaper photographer. He was a "pictorialist," a member of a school described by Ewing as originating in "England and Europe in the 1880s, when 'art photographers' sought to separate themselves from the documentary and commercial applications of the medium," placing emphasis "on the photographer/artist as a creative individual and on producing a work of art, not a photographic record."
Thus Bodine, though he did take pictures under the pressure of deadlines, primarily appeared in The Sun's pages -- first its Sunday rotogravure section, then its Sunday magazine -- as a "romantic pictorialist," especially during the first two decades following his appointment as a photographer in 1927. "Painterly concepts of design and composition are apparent in his work," Ewing writes. "His images also reflect an effort to emulate the visual results of other artistic mediums, such as drawing and painting."
Indeed, Bodine did not in the least hesitate to manipulate his pictures to achieve the desired painterly effect. He was especially enthusiastic about clouds, which, Williams writes, he usually photographed in New England; if he was dissatisfied with the clouds on hand for a particular subject he was photographing, he simply would impose some of his New England clouds on the scene in the privacy of the darkroom. It would not be in the least surprising if he did this in two of his most striking photographs, "Spring Wheat Field, Charles County, 1948" and "October Fields, Baltimore County, 1949."
Clouds were not always necessary or appropriate, of course, and in other pictures Bodine found his dramatic effects elsewhere. A stunning photograph of the Pennsylvania Train Yard in Baltimore is dominated by the majestic funnel of smoke arising from the locomotive; two pictures of lakes, printed on facing pages, depict boats and the shore through mists, as does the haunting "Rowing at Ebb Tide, 1944"; ships in "Baltimore Harbor, Night, 1949," perhaps the finest of all Bodine's photographs, are seen through quiet but dramatic light and haze.
As the titles of these pictures make clear, Maryland was Bodine's chief subject; because he depicted the state so lovingly, it is easy to see how he achieved such remarkable popularity. He loved watermen, boats and the Chesapeake Bay, even though he "could not swim and never owned a bathing suit"; three different pictures of skipjacks, all sailing under brisk winds, are all that any bay-lover could ask for. He was drawn to rolling landscapes, with which Maryland is amply endowed, but he also liked cityscapes; his pictures of Sparrows Point and other landmarks of industrial Baltimore are stark and unsentimental, yet there is definite beauty to them. One picture not taken in Maryland certainly should be mentioned: His 1930 view of the rooftops of Nuremberg has the appearance of an Impressionist painting.
Writing in affectionate but clear-eyed reminiscence, Williams says of his old friend: "His captivating portrayal of Maryland became the eye-catching showpiece of the Sunday Sun package. In fact, many subscribers bought the paper solely because of his pictures. Before long his work became known beyond the reaches of The Sun. He exhibited across the country and around the world, in salons that attracted the best artistic photographers. By competing in that me'tier with newspaper pictures -- a startling development -- he became an innovator and a force among artistic photographers and he enlarged the dimensions of newspaper photography."
That may seem a large claim, but it is justified by every photograph in "A. Aubrey Bodine: Baltimore Pictorialist, 1906-1970." For readers who have known his work for years and for those coming to it for the first time, it is an eminently rewarding, and pleasurable, book.