The black and white world of workers conquering tasks large and small is the subject of Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work, a recently released book of A. Aubrey Bodine photographs edited by his daughter Jennifer Bodine. It’s also the subject of an exhibit of 70 photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Industry that runs from Oct. 15, 2013 to Feb. 6, 2014.
A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore Sun photographer for 47 years, is well-known for iconic images of mid-twentieth century life in Maryland that were published in The Sun’s feature pages and Sunday magazine, but the pictorial work he submitted to international salons won him numerous awards and recognition far beyond Baltimore.
Workers are always seen from a dramatic perspective in Bodine’s pictures, emphasizing the heroic scale of the enterprise or the meticulous detail of a bygone craft. Jennifer Bodine, A. Aubrey Bodine’s only child and the custodian of his legacy, recounted that his one piece of advice to new photographers was, “There’s one best place from which to take the picture. You find it. That’s your job.”
Lugging around a wooden tripod and a large-format camera operated under a black cloth did not lend itself to spontaneous candids; one senses that Bodine liked the control inherent in the restrictions of his equipment. Certainly the large negatives created from his favorite camera, a 5×7 Linhof, were ideal for the extensive darkroom manipulation that Bodine used a half-century before the arrival of digital photo editing.
The book and exhibit capture the key products – steel, oysters, crabs, canning, cotton, tobacco, and even straw hats – that gave Baltimore its identity. The images demonstrate that Bodine cared deeply about his subjects, from vanishing trades and historic architecture to urban and rural scenes threatened by modernization. His photo of an umbrella mender during the Depression is unusual for its gentle empathy.
Bodine understood that many of his subjects, whom he anointed with piercing light and deep shadows, were engaged in dwindling occupations, but of course he could not predict how many other businesses would be lost today. The poignancy of this collection goes beyond the pictorials of oyster tonguers and clam rakers, whose jobs were endangered even in Bodine’s day. Ironically, the working harbor, shipyards, steel furnaces, canning operations, cotton mills and other large manufacturers, celebrated by this documentarian as vibrant industries and commercial behemoths, are also gone. Only the tattoo artist, no doubt viewed by Bodine as yet another fading trade, is still thriving today.