Volume 14, Issue 37 ~ September 14 - September 20, 2006

Where We Live

by Steve Carr

Farewell, Marion Warren

The indispensable man who captured the wondrous story of our lives and the vanishing world around us

Marion Warren, the Ansel Adams of Chesapeake Bay, died last week. In recent years, he had battled various illnesses that laid him low but never sapped his desire to catch another fleeting image of the world around him. So many pictures. So little time.

America abounds with tales of Midwestern farm boys who ventured east to see the world and to make a name for themselves. Marion Warren was such a young man, who left his family’s Missouri farm and migrated east, settling with his wife Mary in the little town of Annapolis, where they raised a family and changed our perception of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay forever.

One of my first childhood memories involves Marion Warren. My father was an amateur photographer, and Marion lived only a few houses away, in a modest red brick Colonial on Baltimore and Annapolis Boulevard. In those days, Annapolis was a tiny backwater with few services, and getting camera equipment on usually involved a trip up the Ritchie Highway to Baltimore.

To augment his income, Marion fixed cameras out of a small studio in the back of his house. My dad took me with him whenever he wanted to buy some fancy new photographic gadget or to get his Leica cameras serviced.

I loved walking around Marion’s cluttered studio, looking at pictures of what to me at the time were foreign images: hunters huddled in a Chester River duck blind; muscled black men working gigantic chopsticks as they tonged for oysters off Bloody Point; farmers atop sturdy tractors, plowing fields of shiny tobacco as dust and seagulls billowed in their wakes. These were the images of the Chesapeake Bay that Marion Warren was beginning to chronicle. But to a small child from Annapolis, Marion’s pictures were almost whimsical.

Lessons from a Master

I learned a wonderful lesson during my visits to the Warren home. Marion’s pictures were, of course, in black and white.

I was talking with Marion a few years back as we were checking out some old dilapidated barns down in Calvert County near Port Tobacco. It was a hot, humid, summer day, and the haze bleached the colors of the Port Tobacco River and everything around it.

I passed Marion a bottle of cold water and said, “Black and white photography is to color as radio is to television. When a person listens to a baseball game on the radio, or looks at that aerial shot you made of the Bay Bridge bathed in moonlight, our minds are free to wander and dream. Color prints and TV do all the work. They leave nothing to the imagination.”

Marion smiled and said, “Where’s the fun in that?”

As a teenager, I lost track of Marion, but I do remember that he was the only adult I knew of who regularly rode a bike. I’d see this gangly guy, all arms and legs, pedaling across the Severn River Bridge on his way to and from work. As a 52-year-old who still gets around on a bicycle, I wonder whether this too was not another life-lesson learned from my old friend.

Marion and I next crossed paths when we were active in the Severn River Association. We used to do nature walks and talk about the changes to our fragile rivers.

When I returned to Annapolis after 15 years living at the Grand Canyon, I ran into Marion on Maryland Avenue, near where he had once operated the M.E. Warren Photo Gallery. He complimented an essay I had recently had published in a local paper, then said off-handedly, “We should do a book together.”

A few years later, we collaborated with local cartoonist Eric Smith on a Bay book called Water Views. During the winter of 2003, we three amigos traveled around the Bay, doing book signings together.

By that time, Marion’s health was pretty bad, and throat cancer had left him almost speechless. But Marion had transcended speech. His dancing eyes and eager smile conveyed the joy he felt about you, and his friends and strangers, his work and the Bay — everything.

In Hard Bean Book Store on that December, I realized that I had never seen Marion Warren lose his cool — or even raise his voice. I watched him nod and smile kindly at people who told him that Bringing Back the Bay had changed their lives, and I realized that Marion Warren was indeed a sort of modern mystic. Like all medicine men with the power to reveal life’s truths, Marion Warren had a peaceful grace that allowed him to see through the shadows, into the very heart of the Bay’s people and places he so diligently loved to chronicle over the course of the last half-century.

So many pictures. So little time.

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