Posted In: Exhibitions on 2/22/2018
In 1923, as an office boy at the Baltimore Sun, A. Aubrey Bodine walked into the office of the editor of the Sunday section, and handed him some photographs he had taken. They were immediately published, and his career as a photojournalist began. Sounds easy, no? Well, in a way it was. As a newspaperman, and as an artist Baltimore was his beat. Atget had Paris, Berenice Abbott had New York, and Bodine had Baltimore. He photographed everything that moved and everything that didn’t…its people, its architecture, its events, its industry, and those who worked in it….their faces, their muscles, their sweat, their burdens and their abilities.
Bodine loved photography, and all it could do, and more so, the way it could do it. He was a wizard in the darkroom, pushing the palette of photographic craft right to the edge. His photographs looked like the world, only more so…not so much exaggerated as expanded. Has the steel hull of a ship ever looked so illuminated and luscious, riding the oily-seeming waves of Baltimore harbor in a cold light at dawn? I can tell you that Richard Serra would love this hull. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a merchantman living his life on the water, surrounded by ships, beaten by weather, and what richness there was to be found there…there it is.
All photographs show you the surface of things, and names them, that’s always been photography’s job. Bodine’s pictures show you what beating heart lies under that surface. His photographs had all the romantic inclinations of Pictorialism, but were sheathed in a skin that was pure Group f64. Their sense of authorship was always present as well…it’s what drew me to them decades ago. I could walk into an auction house viewing with 450 lots of photographs on the wall, and immediately pick out the Bodines from 100 feet away, like I can an Atget, or a Frank. All description bowed to the presence of expression-which is what they are.
Not long ago I went to an exhibition of the work of the American painter Thomas Hart Benton, and saw in him a strong kindred spirit to the work of A Aubrey Bodine. And, both their work was illuminated and so well described by Carl Sandburg in his poem Chicago, which begins:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
It’s interesting that both Bodine and Benton made pictures of the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. Both men saw steel as the center of manufacturing in the United States. Benton wrote: “All that was romantic and aspiring in the American spirit found its expression in steel.” Today, it is the decline of steel manufacturing that we seem to mourn the loss of most. Somehow it stands for, and is linked to, power and prowess and a strong physical work ethic. Steel, more than other endeavors, is foundational and vital for the building and enriching of a nation feeling good about itself. You can see in these pictures the potency and vigor emanating from the work. Without it somehow we are much diminished. The Sparrows Point mill closed in 2012.
But there is much more to Bodine’s work than just factories, merchant ships, and blast furnaces, although these are extraordinary all by themselves, but it is the faces and bodies of the workers performing their yoeman’s work that bring all these elements into the realm of the personal. The pride of sheer physical labor is easy enough to portray, and it runs throughout Bodine’s work, but look at the faces of the young Amish girls and see how beneath the sweetness of their youthful faces there is a kind of fierceness of spirit that speaks of the strength of their characters. Bodine’s photographs always show respect for their subjects.
A short postscript for the connoisseur: Because I liked Bodine’s work so much, I have for years been trying to find the estate…hopefully the mother lode, from which I could draw more, and better. Recently they found me. They had noticed some Bodine photographs on my website, and wondered if I wanted more. “Well, yes”, I said, and so we have begun. Bodine was a consummate printer. His prints were always far above what the requirements were for printing in a newspaper. The estate's prints are by and large, immaculate vintage or early prints, in terrific condition, most are signed, all have great documentation, including exhibition labels from the many venues they appeared, and evidence of the prizes they were awarded. In short, they are a collector’s dream. Come see about two dozen of these fine photographs at our booth (#416) at The AIPAD Photography Show, April 4 th – 8 th , at Pier 94, 55 th St. and the Hudson river, where you'll get a very good look a New York's harbor.