Artist's shots of everyday life get new life

20 of Marion E. Warren's photos displayed in posthumous show

September 15, 2006|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Marion E. Warren planned the whole show from his sick bed. He picked the photographs -- many never seen before -- and wanted to make sure there would be wine. Though the famed Annapolis photographer died Sept. 8 at age 86 after a long bout with cancer, the show went on anyway. More than 300 people gathered to celebrate his life and view his work -- 20 portraits, mostly color -- at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts Wednesday evening.

They talked about learning Maryland history in his basement while cataloging thousands of negatives. They talked about his working man's approach to photography. And they talked about a man who met President John F. Kennedy and photographed Louis Armstrong but dedicated his life's work to capturing the everyday.

"He was always trying to create art for the people," said his daughter and book collaborator, Mame Warren of Baltimore. "The more prints, the happier he was."

And, of course, his prints are everywhere -- in office buildings, museums, dorm and dining rooms.

He captured grizzled watermen out on the water, the Bay Bridge bathed in a full moon, and the development of Baltimore's Charles Center and Inner Harbor. He was to the Chesapeake what Ansel Adams was to Yosemite Valley -- a chronicler of its beauty and a champion of its preservation. His book Bringing Back the Bay was published in 1994 and reissued in 2002. The prints now on display are something new. Long considered a master of black-and-white photography, Warren, also frequently shot in color.

He never liked the results. The prints were too garish, too Technicolor Dreamcoat for his tastes. Not enough like the life he saw.

That all changed with digital technology. About three years ago, Warren began collaborating with Richard Olsenius, an Annapolis-based photographer and multi-media expert, to clean up thousands of his negatives. And in his last years, the famed photographer who was a bit of a daredevil in his younger days, began to see his work in an entirely new way. He saw the shape and details of the foreground waves in his Chesapeake shots, and a lone crab at the bottom of a portrait of a man steaming crabs, stealing away.

"He was thrilled that we started digging into the collection," said Joanie Surette, Warren's longtime friend and business partner. "We were basically pulling a rabbit out of a hat."

And in his last days, Warren looked over his decades-old color shots, from his hospital bed and signed some of them.

The tone, clarity, and visual depth was just right.

The pictured looked like what he had seen.

"His mouth fell open," said Warren, recalling her father's reaction to seeing Skipjack at Sunset, shot in 1980 in the Chesapeake Bay. "There was a spotlight and sheer thrill in his eyes."

That spotlight was also there for Warren's fans, friends and family, many of whom had never seen his work in color, and didn't quite know when he began shooting in color.

No matter, they liked what they saw.

"All of this looks so familiar, not as a photograph, but as what you see in life," said longtime friend, Mildred Millspaugh, as she took in Oyster Hand-tonging in Winter, a photograph of a waterman shot near Tilghman Island in 1980. "I feel like I've seen that man many times."

The exhibit runs until Oct. 20.

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