By Len Lazarick
There are so many billions of bad snapshots taken by smart phones and dumb photographers that we forget what it was like barely 40 years ago and the century before that, when black-and-white photography on film and plate developed into a high art.
There are so many service jobs and so much virtual employment on digital platforms and so much automated work that we have lost touch with all those jobs, crafts and industries where work was done by hand and foot and sweat of brow.
We are transported again into those forgotten crafts with the new book of Aubrey Bodine’s old photographs called “Bodine’s Industry — the Dignity of Work,” edited by his only child, Jennifer Bodine, a Denton resident who has long maintained a website of her father’s work. If you’re unfamiliar with his work — oftentimes seen through one of his numerous depictions of watermen and working skipjacks — you can read more about it and see its results on the A. Aubrey Bodine website.
This large format coffee table book printed on glossy stock with three-tone black ink has multiple pleasures in its 150 pages with 173 digitally restored photos. Not the least of these on the front and back covers and inside are the late lamented Sparrows Point steel plant, once the largest in the world and recently shuttered for good and being sold for parts.
That is gone, with its fiery hearths and sparking pourings of molten steel.
But so are many of the other trades and crafts Bodine documented for five decades.
Ornament maker, mistletoe harvester, umbrella mender
Appropriate for the season, there are the Christmas ornament makers and glass blowers right here in Baltimore — not on a Chinese assembly line. There are also the mistletoe harvester and the holly picker.
But what of the umbrella mender trudging a sidewalk and the lady doll doctor fixing the decapitated — you mean you don’t just throw them away?
There are samples of work we still have around, but in simpler times: the Veterans Hospital operating room or the University of Maryland dental school; the Baltimore cop or the firemen (before they had women firefighters), and an old hook and ladder like the one I’m told my grandfather once drove in Philadelphia.
Occupations people would never think existed
“He showed people in occupations most people would never think existed,” writes Jennifer Bodine. “Consider the tooth brush bristle inspector. He shot people doing jobs that would send a workplace safety inspector into apoplexy.”
She says: “In putting this book together, I have been struck by how dangerous some of these shoots were.” Hanging off the sides of boats in stormy weather when he couldn’t swim. Scaling mountains he was not trained or dressed to climb.
But then there are photos of mundane jobs still around but with old methods: the blacksmith on Aliceanna Street in Fells Point, the tattoo artist adorning a naked woman on the Block,
the lumber haulers, the nimble stackers of 10,000 vinegar barrels, the violin maker, the fire eating clown, the port’s longshoremen before cargo came in containers, the farmer with a team of oxen, the yoke maker for that team with his hefty hand drill. On and on.
Put it on the coffee table or nightstand and open it anywhere, uncluttered by captions, which are in the back but often supply scant information. All this stuff was made in Maryland before 3-D manufacturing, computer assisted design and robotics.
As his mission in life, Aubrey Bodine took his job as a newspaper photographer, refined into a high craft and then made it into an art. He died in 1970 after 50 years behind the lens, but as Jennifer says, “Fortunately he left a photographic legacy for all the rest of us to enjoy.”