When I sat down to tell you about my photo adventure that began last summer, I got hung up on the title. My Year with the Hon is descriptive, but I was looking for something either as literary as A Year in Provence or as quantitative as Two Years Before the Mast. Then it struck me. I spent the year with Baltimore’s Best HON. Who needs literary or quantity when you already have the best, the superlative, the supreme? Phew, now I can get along with my story.
We here in Baltimore know that hon is a term of endearment, short for honey. Use of the word hon is wide-spread throughout the Baltimore neighborhoods of Dundalk, Essex, Hampden, and Highlandtown. The word is a way of being civil and polite, yet homespun and informal all at once. In essence, the use of hon is a way to draw closer to those one meets. If you capitalize the word, Hon refers to a woman.
For more than 15 years, thousands of visitors from throughout our fair city, the Mid-Atlantic region, and a number of foreign countries flock to Hampden early each June for HonFest. It is a hilarious weekend experience. Beehive hairdos, blue eye shadow, housedresses, and spandex fill four city blocks. Pink flamingos and leopard print-clad women weave their way through the crowd. The fragrance of Aqua Net hairspray wafts through the air … as does the delicious aroma of funnel cakes, crab cakes, hotdogs, brats, kettle corn, and raspberry lemonade (getting hungry?). HonFest honors working women, and the crowning event is the Best Hon pageant. Contestants undergo a rigorous (make that hilarious, rib-hurting funny) evaluation of their Bawlmerese elocution, talent, and costume.
Charlene Osborne won the title of Bawlmer’s Best HON 2009. Not one to rest on her laurels, or rhinestone tiara to be precise, she decided to make the most of her year-long reign. She used her fame and renown to give back to the community. Her appearance at various events benefited local charities, boosted support for community organizations, and drew attention to a variety of local small businesses. In general, she served as emissary of all the charm and good will Charm City Baltimore has to offer.
I dropped everything else I had planned to do over the winter months and devoted full energy to serving as principal photographer of Charlene’s many hon-derful adventures. It has been heart-warming to witness the joyful reactions of most people she meets, be they young children at a parade or senior citizens in a retirement home. It has been hilarious to watch the double-takes and curious side-long glances given to Charlene by those unfamiliar with the Bawlmer hon tradition. Maybe this is the point at which I should explain Charlene stands over 7’ tall when she wears her platform oxford shoes and beehive hairdo. When she carries her parasol, she reaches stratospheric heights. Quite the visual, eh?
Charlene has written a book entitled My Year as Baltimore’s Best HON. It will be in local bookstores in early June. The book allows readers a glimpse inside the hive of beehive hairdo life. One will marvel at the ever-colorful outfits, blue eye shadow, and lots of hairspray (by the way, you do know that the higher one’s hair, the closer one is to heaven, right?). Book buyers can join the fun and excitement of an once-in-a-lifetime visit inside the secret Hon-cave. Accompany Charlene and her hon-derful friends on a sedate (that what she says!) night out on the town or on a weekend trip down the ocean. Rock along to the music of bands of renown and discover that Elvis (well, at least his many tribute artists) is indeed still in the house. Join her backstage at the theater, onstage at the Polar Bear Plunge, and out and about in Baltimore’s many neighborhoods.
By documenting Baltimore’s Hons, I discovered it is fun and rewarding to photograph local culture. I no longer consider myself a confirmed hey-what’s-that-person-doing-in-my-viewfinder nature photographer. My wife suggested I add wild life photographer to my resume (in the future I will pretend I made up that line). I learned to use different techniques and achieve equally good results. For example, I left my tripod at home and handheld the camera to capture all the images for this book. This does not mean I no longer use a tripod; rather, I use it when appropriate. I used flash and higher ISOs to capture low light scenes; tilted the camera to create angles and compositions that complimented the scene; and, discovered one can let some highlights go white to emphasis your subject.
I have had the privilege of documenting the uproarious, fun-filled, eventful reign of Bawlmer’s Best HON 2009. After she surrenders her tiara to the Best HON 2010 this June, Charlene, known as Blaze Char in the Hon world and for bookings, plans to continue making appearances and doing charity work. She is also working on the sequel to My Year as Baltimore’s Best Hon. Could there be a script in her future?
This is all exciting news! My wild, wacky, and rewarding adventure photographing local culture is … to be continued.