Capturing the essence of the Chesapeake


Renowned Annapolis photographer Marion E. Warren used to go to all lengths - and heights - to capture striking images of the Chesapeake Bay.

He'd climb church steeples, mountains and bridges, to the top of a ferry terminal and out along spray-drenched sailboat bowsprits.

Now 82 and ailing after bouts with two types of cancer, Warren - whose pictures over half a century have helped shape the region's collective image - is too weak to go out much with his camera and gear.

Instead, he is working in retrospect, using digital technology to reprint his photographs of watermen, sailboats and buildings - and discovering long-hidden details as others discover him.

"People say, 'Don't you get tired of printing your same pictures over and over?'" says Warren about the darkroom work that has always been his passion. "I say, 'No, it's like a new experience.' To look at a beautiful new print I have made, it is just as exciting as making a print of it for the first time."

Warren once made a living as a commercial photographer who chronicled Baltimore's redevelopment and illustrated ads for National Bohemian beer. He was the official state photographer under Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, with photos in Maryland tour guides and maps.

Along the way, Warren captured the life and the times of Maryland - the watermen and farmers and small towns that have changed over the decades.

He has two books in print now, one on the Chesapeake Bay, the other on the development of Baltimore's Charles Center and Inner Harbor. There is a yearlong exhibit in the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis, an exhibit at Salisbury University and another to open in Baltimore this spring.

"Marion is a historian in a sense, in that he has preserved things in his photographs that are gradually disappearing," says Tom Beck, curator for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose collection includes M.E. Warren photos. "He has a quiet, understated style that is both document as well as art."

Warren's pictorial photographs, which may appear simple at first glance, have a depth that lets viewers discover new things in them and allows them to last over the years, says Ed Ross, professor emeritus of photography at Loyola College.

"There's more to his work than the surface; you can become involved in it," says Ross. "It somehow connects the audience with the subject in a meaningful way."

Warren was born in Wheat Basin, Mont., in 1920, and his twin brother and mother died before his second birthday. He and his father lived with his grandparents on their Missouri farm until his grandmother was killed in a car accident.

At age 12, he moved in with his aunt, Edna Warren, a reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. When Warren decided while in high school that he wanted to be a photographer, his aunt told him that the photographers she knew were "great drinkers, alcoholics most of them," he recalls.

"When I told her I wanted to be a photographer, she nearly died," Warren says. "I said, 'You don't understand, I don't want to be a newspaper photographer.' She was very relieved."

After graduating from high school, Warren worked in portrait studios, advertising, commercial photography and, despite his reservations about news photography, did a short stint with the Associated Press.

During World War II, he was drafted into the Navy and picked for a photography unit. While on assignment, he met Mary Giblin, a WAVE at the time, whom he married in October 1943. The couple had three children: Paul, Nancy and Mame.

Four years after they married, the Warrens moved to Annapolis and opened a studio in their basement. Over the years, Warren worked for a variety of companies and architectural firms, published photos in magazines and traveled around Maryland taking pictures for the state.

"My introduction was by camera to the people and images of the bay region," Warren says.

He warmed quickly to the watermen he met - they reminded him of the farmers he grew up with in the Midwest. He knew never to approach as an outsider with a camera. Instead, he would often spend time talking to his subjects, making them forget about the camera.

"I talked to them about the way things were," he says. "I would get to know them, and then I would approach them about the pictures."

Soon, the photographer, who published his first book in 1970 about Annapolis, began collecting and reproducing historic photos of the region. Eventually, he published four books of vintage photographs with his daughter Mame.

Working with older pictures - especially for Maryland Time Exposures, published in 1984 - changed the way Warren thought of his own photography.

Previously, he had discounted the value of people in his pictures - their clothing and hairstyles tended to date the photo, he thought, limiting how long it could be sold. But after working with historic prints, he realized that having people in the photos helped to reveal the time and place, to show how people lived.

He began to work almost exclusively in black and white, which is more archival in nature and, he believes, allows people to see more details "without the distraction of color."

The lessons he learned working with historic photographs were particularly helpful when he embarked on what he calls his "bay project" - a book written with Mame Warren that would take him 10 years to finish and contain some of his most well-known photos.

"We wanted to see the way people lived," Warren says of the book he considers his life's work. "We were trying to document the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

Published in 1994 and reissued last fall, Bringing Back the Bay spans Warren's career, from the 1940s through the early 1990s. It includes his perhaps most famous photo, a night shot of the Bay Bridge a year after it was built, under a full moon.

Mary Tod Winchester, vice president of administration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says Warren's photos have been "crucial" in showing people "what a real national treasure the bay is."

"If you look at his pictures, he captures the essence of the bay," Winchester says.

In 1987, Warren closed the gallery he had run on Maryland Avenue for 13 years. He donated all of his work - about 100,000 photos - to the Maryland State Archives, retaining commercial rights as long as he lives. Mame Warren served as the collection's curator.

By then, his wife, Mary, had received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, and the couple sold their house just outside Annapolis and moved into the City Gate townhouses downtown, where Warren still lives.

After Bringing Back the Bay, Warren was at a loss about what to do next. While doing the book, "I saw pictures everywhere I turned," he says. "Now that the book is finished, I don't see pictures much anymore."

In 1997, Warren nearly died of complications related to colon cancer; his wife's condition worsened, and she moved into an assisted-living home in 1999. Last year, Warren was found to have cancer of the larynx, which was removed in September, leaving his voice raspy and toneless.

Mame Warren says an August 2001 exhibit at St. John's College enticed her father back into the darkroom and gave him the creative kick-start he needed after his illnesses.

"A whole new generation discovered Marion Warren at that retrospective," Mame Warren says.

He works now with fellow Annapolitan Richard Olsenius to print his most popular pictures with a digital method known as Piezography that enables a photographer to clean up scratched negatives and alter shadings - a process that can reveal surprising details in even the most familiar images.

An example is "Drifting Dredgers," a photograph taken on a still day on the Chesapeake Bay nearly 50 years ago that has graced the dust jackets of four books. For years, the face of a thick-bodied, dark-skinned waterman remained shrouded in shadows. But in a print he made with Olsenius recently, Warren got a "great thrill" to see the man's facial features.

Warren would like to get back behind the camera, especially during the "lacy-leaf" springtime, his favorite time of year to shoot. He wants to finish a book about Annapolis' architectural details that he started two years ago.

And his daughter is encouraging him to produce a book with photos from his time in the Navy through the present - pictures taken during wartime in Europe and the Far East, during Baltimore's zenith as an industrial powerhouse and over the last half-century along the bay.

"I think," says Mame Warren, "we are going to discover some hidden treasures."

A photo caption with yesterday's article about photographer Marion E. Warren transposed the names of two women flanking him. Mr. Warren's partner, Joanie Surrette, was on the left and his daughter Mame on the right.The Sun regrets the error.
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