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Book Review: Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work, by A. Aubrey Bodine

Working Man’s Blues - Aubrey Bodine’s photos of working life highlight what we’ve lost

Photo: Aubrey Bodine, License: N/A

Aubrey Bodine

No time for a smoke break in Bodine’s 1955 portrait, Glass Blowing.

Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work

Edited by Jennifer Bodine

Schiffer Books

When the Sparrows Point steel mill finally shut down last year, there was the sense that it was the end of an era when large-scale manufacturing plants and the jobs they created were a dominant force in Baltimore. More generally, it seemed we had lost a tangible link to a simpler time, when more of us worked with our hands for a living and bore the physical effects of our working lives.

For those of us too young to really remember that time, and particularly those of us who spend much of our workdays sitting at desks, staring at screens, Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work (Schiffer Books)—a new book of photographs by celebrated Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine, who worked for the paper from 1920 until his death in 1970—helps to put things in perspective.

It’s not that we didn’t know that people made steel, wheels, hats, and toothbrushes here, as the people in some of the photographs do, but paying attention to the details of their work—the showers of sparks dancing off the shoes of Bethlehem Steel workers, the massive pile of toothbrushes waiting to be manually trimmed by a single inspector—help us imagine what their daily work lives were really like.

There is a certain dignity and honesty apparent in many of the photos. One can’t help but compare the work being done in the photos to more modern jobs. While a lot of the work done today is hard to measure—how long it should take to make a marketing plan, increase web traffic, or make financial plans, to use three random examples—the straw-hat maker knows exactly how many straw hats he makes in a day (a lot, if the picture is any indication). Of course, there are plenty of folks in today’s workforce who make things, work with their hands, and get dirty and sweaty doing it, but looking at these pictures, selected from Bodine’s work for The Sun, it becomes clear that it was more common then, that this was the way most Baltimoreans made their pay.

And that impression is backed up by the range of pictures in the book. After all, Bodine’s Industry, edited by the photographer’s daughter, Jennifer Bodine, does not exclusively focus on the manufacturing industry. There are doctors, policemen, longshoreman, bakers, artists, even circus performers—as the younger Bodine says in her introduction, “I sought to include a wide variety of occupations”—but the overwhelming majority of those pictured worked with their hands. And for many of the occupations that existed then and now, like farm workers and clam fishermen, the work was clearly much less automated then.

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bodine’s work that the photographs themselves, all black-and-white, are routinely spectacular. The photographer had an eye for dramatic, sharply contrasted compositions that relied on natural light. The subjects seemed generally at ease with Bodine, himself just another working stiff. The images are full of rich details, like the cigarette dangling out of the corner of the glass-blower’s mouth, even as he furiously blows into a glass tube, distending his cheeks almost grotesquely, or the rings of tinsel wrapped around the arms of a woman making Christmas decorations.

Looking through the photos inevitably makes the reader wonder what a companion book of today’s workforce would look like. It would certainly look a lot less diverse. The loss of the manufacturing industry combined with the rise of computers and the internet and related jobs would mean a lot more desks and computers. But the service industry is arguably larger now than it’s ever been, particularly in the health field, and we’ve got the wide variety of jobs that go along with the increased tourism industry.

Putting aside the differences in the jobs themselves, would today’s workers show as much dignity, as much pride in what they do as the men and women in this book? My guess, sadly, is no, that workers today see our jobs more as a means to an end, a way to make money to achieve the life of leisure that we’d ideally live full-time. I would further guess that this loss is related to fewer people working with their hands, creating, fixing, and collecting things, achieving a physical skill, doing work that offers a more demonstrable sense of accomplishment. And businesses today are less invested in their workers, the workers less secure, than in Bodine’s day—one need only look to the precarious position of staff members at the photographer’s former employer, The Sun, to see that.

Click below to view more of Bodine's photos
Photo Gallery - Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work

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