Chesapeake Quarterly
The Art of A. Aubrey Bodine
A. Aubrey Bodine got a waterman to move his skiff into position and pretend he was catching oysters. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright  Jennifer B. Bodine
To set up this famous photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine got a waterman to move his skiff into position and pretend he was catching oysters. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright © Jennifer B. Bodine, courtesy of www.aaubreybodine.com

IN 1948, A NEWS PHOTOGRAPHER from the Baltimore Sun was visiting Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore when he saw a solitary waterman standing in the stern of a skiff and probing the nearby shallows with a set of small hand tongs. The waterman was Bill Page and he was busy "nippering" for oysters, picking out and pulling up large oysters one at a time. The water was so clear he could easily see the oysters he wanted to pluck from the shallows.

The photographer was A. Aubrey Bodine and he could easily see the picture he wanted to pluck from the scene. In front of him was an unusual oystering technique. Off to the side was a cluster of decaying pilings poking up from the shallows like sentinels standing at attention. For the picture he wanted, however, for the picture he saw in his head, he had to put the two scenes together.

When Bodine asked Bill Page to move his skiff and go oystering among those scenic pilings, the watermen told the photographer, "Ain't no oysters there." The photographer persisted, the waterman finally complied, and the stark and striking photograph that resulted is still found in books and museums and magazines like this one.

Bodine was clearly working in a romantic, expressive tradition. The image he saw in his head with its shapes and lines, its tones and textures, was more important than the actual scenes he saw in front of him. Bodine always said his job wasn't to take pictures, but to make pictures — and in most cases he wanted to make a picture that looked like an artist's painting. And to do that he was always ready to reshape any scene he found in the field and to restructure any image he took into the darkroom.

1948 photograph, Choptank Oyster Dredgers. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright  Jennifer B. Bodine
The 1948 photograph, "Choptank Oyster Dredgers," won awards in nine countries, including the U.S., where it beat out 50,000 entries to win first place in the Popular Photography national contest. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright © Jennifer B. Bodine, courtesy of www.aaubreybodine.com

It was an unusual approach to find in a newspaper photographer, especially one with little academic background. Bodine was only 14 when he left school in 1920 to take a job as an errand boy and later as an advertising photographer at the Baltimore Sun. When he was 18, he joined the Photographic Club of Baltimore, an organization that sponsored local exhibitions and popularized the ideas of a movement known as pictorialism. Its key idea: a photograph could be more than a simple, mechanical record of reality; it could present an artist's personal interpretation of reality. It could be a piece of art.

Consorting with Baltimore pictorialists proved a formative experience for Bodine. With little formal training in art or photography, he eagerly absorbed their ideas and began experimenting with their techniques. A photographer, according to one of the movement leaders, could be "a painter who uses his camera instead of the brush." Some of Bodine's photographs would imitate paintings by American artists like George Bellows, Winslow Homer, and even Edward Hopper. When he was only 19, Bodine won a statewide contest, and had two photographs accepted for exhibit in the New York salon of the Photographic Pictorialists of America.

He was launched as an art photographer but not yet as a news photographer. And he faced a dilemma: as a romantic pictorialist he wanted each photograph to stand as a piece of art; as a photo journalist, however, he would be expected to produce straightforward, unaltered records of the events he covered.

It was a dilemma Bodine began solving after landing a staff job as a news photographer at age 21. His long-term solution would combine luck, initiative, and talent. It was his luck to work for the Baltimore Sun during an era when the paper ran a popular Sunday-only "Brown Section" that featured large, sepia-colored scenes of life around Maryland. On his own initiative, Bodine kept entering national photographic contests and there his talent with art photos won major awards.

The result: the public kept responding to his artful images, his photographic reputation kept growing, and his clout kept increasing in the hallways of the Sun building. In 1946, when the newspaper started the Sunday Sun Magazine, Bodine had another weekly outlet for artful, full-page images from around the state. In time, sentimental images by A. Aubrey Bodine became as popular in the Sun as satirical essays and reports from H.L. Mencken.

Study in Motion. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright  Jennifer B. Bodine
High, billowing clouds create dramatic depth and interest in many Bodine photographs. In the image he called "Study in Motion" the men haul-seining for fish in the shallows of the Chesapeake are outlined against a sky that may have come from elsewhere. He would photograph clouds in New England, expose one of these cloud negatives, and then double print a Chesapeake scene over it. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright © Jennifer B. Bodine, courtesy of www.aaubreybodine.com

To create his art, Bodine drove into the field with a trunk full of odd tools. In addition to his 5"x7" box camera and his tripod, he brought a machete to clear away brush, a ladder to get higher angles, a shovel to dig out lower angles, a bee smoker to diffuse the light, a parasol to reflect flash, and a roll of white toilet paper to wrap around and soften the light from his flash bulbs.

When he walked into his darkroom to work on his images of the Chesapeake Bay, he carried other tools: images of New England skies and Nova Scotia skies piled high with dramatic, billowing clouds that he had photographed on vacation trips. With careful printing he used these far northern skies to give depth to his photos of the flat, low-lying landscapes and waterscapes of the Chesapeake. His darkroom repertoire also included adding suns behind the mist, raindrops on water surfaces, snow in the air, an osprey in the sky — whatever enhanced mood or sharpened composition or transformed a photograph into his idea of fine art.

Snapper Trapper. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright  Jennifer B. Bodine
In the artfully composed "Snapper Trapper," a waterman lowers a trap for snapping turtles, his work exactly framed by two cypress trees, each exactly framed by a crown of billowing clouds. Photograph, A. Aubrey Bodine, copyright © Jennifer B. Bodine, courtesy of www.aaubreybodine.com

Bodine worked for the Baltimore Sun for 50 years and published five popular books, all featuring photographs of the Bay. On October 28, 1970, while busy in the darkroom (where else?), he collapsed with a stroke. He died later that day at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He was only 64 years old.

His art made him Maryland's most famous photographer but Bodine would have trouble landing — or keeping — a staff job today. "I look at him as a pictorialist, not a journalist," says David Harp, the award-winning photographer who once worked for Bodine's old newspaper and now works for the Bay Journal. His compositions were "superb," but according to Harp, "He did things he would be fired for if he worked at any modern newspaper."

All those techniques he tried in the field and the darkroom would no longer count as journalism, but in Bodine's hands they helped elevate his best photography into art. And that, after all, was the driving dream of those early Baltimore pictorialists who inspired an eager but untutored young man determined to break into photography.


Where to Find Photographs

The best place to find A. Aubrey Bodine's images is www.aaubreybodine.com, an excellent website managed by Jennifer Bodine and Richard Orban.

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