Photographer had a passion for bay

Marion E. Warren 1920-2006

September 10, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

Marion E. Warren, the celebrated Annapolis photographer who chronicled the history and culture of the Chesapeake Bay for more than half a century, died Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.

Just three hours before he died at Anne Arundel Medical Center, Mr. Warren, who in his younger days would scale a ship's mast or climb a bridge piling to find the right angle, was reviewing three new prints of his negatives for an exhibit Wednesday in Annapolis.

The man who became known as "the Ansel Adams of the Chesapeake" was reared in landlocked prairie towns, far from the shimmering waters and barnacled skipjacks that would become synonymous with his name.

Born in Wheat Basin, Mont., Mr. Warren moved to Missouri with his father as a young boy, after his mother and twin brother died. At age 12, he moved in with an aunt in St. Louis, where he bought his first camera, an Argus, for $12.50. After he graduated from high school, he enrolled in photography classes at Washington University.

He came East after he was drafted into the Navy during World War II, and was assigned to a photography unit in Washington. There he met Mary Giblin, who was a Navy WAVE, and the couple married in 1943.

Four years later, the Warrens moved to Annapolis and opened a portrait and commercial studio in their basement. He took photos for various magazines and architecture firms, and served as the official photographer for the state during the McKeldin administration.

In 1970, he published his first book, Annapolis Adventure, with his wife. He would go on to publish photography books on Charles Center, the Inner Harbor and the U.S. Naval Academy.

But it was his Bay Project that was closest to his heart and consumed his energies for the past 20 years.

Mr. Warren spent 10 years documenting the lives of watermen, oyster shuckers and sailcloth makers. Unassuming and reserved, he spent hours with his subjects before he pulled out a camera, often shooting without looking in the viewfinder to capture people in their natural state.

The result was 1994's Bringing Back the Bay, a collection of black-and-white photographs that is part coffee-table retrospective and part testimonial. It was, his daughter and co-author Mame Warren said, "a total act of love," spurred on by his fear that future generations would never see the Chesapeake Bay he had known.

"If it hadn't been for Marion, a lot of what we know visually about oystering, about crabbing, about life on the bay, would be lost," said longtime state archivist Edward Papenfuse, a close friend who manages Mr. Warren's collection of 100,000 photos.

One of the most famous was an image of the Bay Bridge in the moonlight just after the first span opened in 1952. He climbed about 60 feet to the top of the old Sandy Point ferry terminal and, wanting to prevent the light from being too bright, reached around the camera and stopped the shutter as a lone car rounded the curve.

On his Web site, he says he was amazed the technique worked. It turned out so well that, to this day, it's hard for many to see a harvest moon over the bay and not reflect on that photo.

Tom Horton, a longtime environmental writer and former Sun columnist, found himself doing just that as he crossed the bridge the night before Mr. Warren died as a full moon hung in the sky.

"I knew he was fading fast, and wished I could have called him that evening from the bridge," Mr. Horton said. "Anyone who wants to know the Chesapeake must include a look through Marion's legacy of black-and-white photographs of the region. He was certainly one of my inspirations in choosing to write about the bay."

In his last decade, Mr. Warren remained focused on the bay, even through the 2003 death of his wife and health problems of his own. In 1997, he nearly died of colon cancer. In 2002, he was found to have cancer of the larynx, which was removed; he grew a beard to cover the stoma and continued working. In 2004, he was hospitalized again, this time with lung cancer.

What kept his spirits up was the renewed interest in his work from people who had not grown up with the bay. After a 2001 photography exhibit, he partnered with graphic designer Joanie Surette and State Circle gallery owner Katherine Burke to exhibit and market his work.

Though he loved the black-and-white look and had an unrivaled skill in the darkroom, he had recently begun working with an Annapolis photographer to redigitize his most popular pictures, cleaning up scratches and shadings. For the first time, Mr. Warren could see faces of men who were formerly only shadows.

"He said these were secrets that were in these negatives for all these years, and for the first time, they could see the light of day," Ms. Surette said. "And the excitement in his eyes when he saw them was just something to behold."

Ms. Burke's shop, the Annapolis Publishing Collection, began hosting "Tuesdays with Marion," inviting the public to book signings. More than 900 people came to his last appearance two weeks ago.

A celebration of Mr. Warren's life will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the opening of his exhibit at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis.

"This is the way he's going out, with an exhibit of work opening that he's never seen before," Ms. Warren said. "This man was completely happy and satisfied with his life. We should all be so lucky."

In addition to his daughter, who lives in Baltimore, survivors include another daughter, Nancy Warren Atkinson of Pocomoke; and a son, Paul Donald Warren of Redington Beach, Fla.

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