Capturing the essence of the Chesapeake

Photographer: For decades, M.E. Warren has documented the life and times of Maryland. Now 82, he spends his time touching up his life's work.

March 04, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

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.

FOR THE RECORD - 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.

"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.

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