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A. Aubrey Bodine - Legend In His Time - Man, Camera, Legend


The day after A. Aubrey Bodine died a stranger stopped an editor leaving the Sunpapers building and said, “I just want to say that I'm sorry to hear about Aubrey Bodine's death. I never met him, but I always admired his pictures. To me he was sort of a Maryland legend.”

A legend in his own time?

Not unlikely.

To his friends he was a free spirit, an uncommon man, an artist not only in ability but in temperament, and, in this age of conformity, one of the last of the truly rugged and colorful individualists. An associate described him as a man of cast iron whims. Ralph Reppert was convinced that if Bodine had ever fallen off a boat and drowned his body would have floated upstream.

He was a man of many pet hates. It would be impossible to list them all for reasons of space, propriety and the possibility of libel. But here is a sampler, not necessarily in the order of his animosity: the Red Cross, Formstone, baked potatoes in tinfoil jackets, liberals, exposure meters, radio newscasters except those with WOR New York, the coddling of prisoners (he had been upset about this since 1949 when he learned that they occasionally watch TV and have turkey on holidays), Howard Johnson restaurants, long pencils, architects, pie that was cut in more than four slices, race horses, editorial writers, anti-vivisectionists, politicians, plastic, the National Safety Council and city planners.

This is how he felt about city planners ( the view was in a note he hoped the caption writer would use for his picture of Tyson street): “Tyson street is a standing example of how wrong the hordes of phony city planners can be. Their one ambition is to bulldoze it if it doesn't move! It is a mid-Twentieth Century shame to see so many perfectly beautiful homes being destroyed by utter and willful destruction just for the hell of seeing things crumble. My good friend Eddie Rosenfeld and his neighbors fought a winning battle to keep the cinder block, plaster board and tar paper gang out.”

He liked, and this more or less in order of preference, his work, the Sunpapers, Maryland, corncob pipes, a good cup of coffee, colorful clothes ( when a friend wore a black suit he would comment, “Well, I see you got your Tickner suit on today.”), radio (he had more than twelve in his home, all in working order), gilded eagles of assorted sizes, and anything that was old and handmade. He had collected and prized such assorted objects as a barber pole, ox yoke, a broken wooden horse from an early merry-go-round, and a strange looking mermaid cast in concrete, weighing 200 pounds, that had been sculptured on a rainy afternoon by a retired Eastern Shore potato farmer.

Bodine had a proprietary interest in Maryland and he was always writing the governor, United States senators, state officials and even county commissioners on how he felt the state could be improved. He particularly watched for neglect at historic places and scenic locations. His criticism and recommendations usually got quick results.

His opinion carried weight in other ways too. He wrote the president of the Baltimore and Ohio that he couldn't photograph Mount Clare Station properly until the railroad moved several poles. This was done even though it cost a considerable sum.

Some years before that a statewide organization, after much consideration, picked Brice House as the loveliest house in Maryland. Bodine was asked to photograph it in connection with the forthcoming announcement. He agreed with the selection but said he couldn't photograph the house properly because of the angles involved. The committee reconvened and picked a house that Bodine could portray in all its glories, Whitehall.

His pictorial art was a result of unique talent, hard work and darkroom magic. He was an artist in the full sense of the word. A book could be written about his photography but the essence probably was his astounding knowledge of light and how he controlled it to communicate beauty and mood.

Above all he was a painstaking worker.

When an editor suggested a picture of the Maryland Historical Society building in December, Bodine replied that he would wait until late April when the sun was on the right axis for the shot he wanted. In April, without a reminder, he called the late James Foster, then the director of the society, to make arrangements. He wanted “no parking” signs posted the night before so there would be no cars to mar the view. He wanted the doors of the society opened and the flags hung from the third-floor staffs. Since the picture was to be made about 5 a.m. - long before a building custodian would be out of bed-he had the director himself come down, open the doors and hang the flags.

His favorite camera was a 5 by 7 Linhof which he used with an old-fashioned black cloth. His favorite piece of equipment was a compass which would enable him to figure out when he would have the right light when he was in a strange location.

Much of the Bodine magic was accomplished in the darkroom. He seldom if ever talked about what he did there, even to the other magazine photographers. Through the use of the usual chemicals, but in proportions he had worked out rather than those recommended by the manufacturer, he got his unique subtle tones and effects.

He was adept at double printing. Many of his beautiful landscapes and seascapes contained clouds that were made at other times and places. He had a bulging file of cloud formations, many of them shot in Maine. Only the sharpest observers ever detected the dubbing. On one memorable occasion he was caught using cumulus clouds to fill the sky while cirrus clouds were reflected in the Potomac River.

Though his work was famous for its subtleties he never saw non-photographic matters other than in black or white, with no gradations. His solutions, no matter the problem, were simple, and usually drastic.

Whenever he would get trapped on the Ritchie highway by the long light at Glen Burnie he would launch into a typical tirade. “They ought to take the guy who set the timing pattern for that light,” he would roar, “and tie him down to the road with chains and let tractor trailers run over him for 48 hours.”

For those who disagreed with him, whether they were leaders or simple misguided souls, he heartily recommended some form of capital punishment or a diabolical torture he often invented on the spur of the moment.

And yet he was a man of great sensitivity. He was so impressed with the beauty and perfection of Tulip Hill on the West River that he once observed, “I am an inveterate corncob pipe smoker and I use more matches than tobacco. When I am at Tulip Hill, which I regard as exquisitely kept, I put my matches in my pocket and risk burning my coat rather than soil its ashtrays.”

He was shy and often withdrawn and yet, on the most unlikely of occasions, he would speak his mind. When taking a picture of a Guilford drawing room the lady of the house bragged to him about the expensive mahogany paneling. Bodine, who regarded himself as an expert on wood, looked at it closely and uttered only one word and that in a tone that defied contradiction. “Pine,” he said.

Photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when they were visiting the Eastern Shore, Bodine remarked to the former king of England, “You know, you look like someone else I photographed.” And to prove it he produced a copy of his book, “Chesapeake Bay and Tidewater,” turned to page 96, and pointed to a picture of a Deal Island blacksmith.

It was difficult to best him in an argument, even with fact, and he invariably had the last word. If a friend would say, “But, Aubrey, I looked it up in the encyclopaedia,” he would retort, “Encyclopaedia Britannica! What the hell do they know about it!? They'll tell you anything!”

After Bodine photographed the University Baptist Church, the minister at the time, the Rev. Vernon B. Richardson, who was a great admirer of Bodine, sought to make small talk. “Do you develop your own pictures?” he asked. Bodine took the corncob out of his mouth and with a smile returned the question, “Do you develop your own sermons?”

Shortly before he died in October he visited a friend on a Saturday morning, lugging a heavy sander for the friend to use. His health was failing and the exertion had tired him. He sat silently on the screen porch for a few minutes and suddenly asked for a glass of water. He then gulped a pill to ease a recurring chest pain. There were a few more minutes of silence, then he said, “Please do me a favor.”

The friend thought, “Here comes part of the last will and testament.” Before he could answer, Bodine had erupted in typical fashion. “Take that -- sander right now and fix that -- screen door [it was warped and didn't close tightly]. It's driving me out of my mind.”

The friend did as told. Bodine watched closely, offering advice and uncomplimentary remarks on the friend's clumsy efforts. Finally he could stand the incompetence no longer. He took the sander in hand and finished the job.

A perfectionist in all things to the end.

-reprinted from “The Best of Bodine,” a special magazine published by the Baltimore Sunday Sun on December 13, 1970.

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