Bringing Back the Bay with Marion E. Warren
On marshy, isolated Smith Island, a crabber waits for the first peeler run of 1965, surrounded by his baskets and shedding floats. Photograph courtesy of Mame Warren
LIKE ROBERT DE GAST, Marion E. Warren was not a native of the Chesapeake region. He was born in Montana in a town that no longer exists, and raised around St. Louis, Missouri, where he started his career doing commercial, advertising, medical, and news photography.
When he eventually landed in the Chesapeake region as a young photographer, Warren would begin a long-term documentary exploration of its places, its people, and its history. In his later years his work would be driven by a strong sense of environmental mission.
What brought Warren to the region was World War II. Like de Gast he received some of his training and experience in photography through military service. Drafted into the U.S. Navy, he served with a photographic unit that was assigned to the Pentagon. That meant a lot of portraits of a lot of colonels and generals. The leader of Warren's unit, oddly enough, was Edward Steichen, the famous photographer and art theorist. Once a proponent of the pictorialist approach favored by A. Aubrey Bodine, Steichen by WWII had switched to "straight photography," the style that Warren would work in.
After his Pentagon experience, Warren moved across the Potomac to work as a traditional portrait photographer for the Harris and Ewing Studio in Washington, D.C. The largest photographic studio in the country, the company had dozens of staff photographers and dozens more on call as freelancers. That meant a lot of portraits of politicians and bureaucrats. In 1947, Warren decided to start his own studio and moved to Annapolis, the Colonial, red-bricked Chesapeake shore town where he would make his home for the next 60 years.
To build his photographic career, Warren became a jack-of-many-trades and a master of most of them. He still did portrait photography but he also specialized in architectural, corporate, and magazine photography. Thanks to his Annapolis location, he could also serve, in effect, as the photographer for the state of Maryland's Department of Information.
As a transplant to the state, Warren carried the zeal of the convert and spent years soaking up the history of Maryland. With his daughter Mame he produced a series of books stuffed with vintage photographs they collected, showing bygone times around Annapolis and Baltimore and some of the rural regions across the state.
During his long career, Warren began to worry that a healthy Chesapeake Bay might become a bygone memory. He saw the Bay show signs of decline: disappearing seagrass beds, deteriorating water quality, and slumping harvests of oysters and blue crabs and striped bass. His response at age 64 was to organize a decade-long project to document the varieties of human life around the Chesapeake Bay.
Near Annapolis, a rockfish party celebrates during the Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair in the early 1950s. Most of these big fish were well over the legal size limit at the time. Photograph courtesy of Mame Warren
At an age when many people retire, he launched a last personal odyssey, hauling his box camera and tripod and tape recorder around the Bay and up many of the tributaries, determined to capture images and record oral histories of the people who knew the Chesapeake before it began to change. The result was Bringing Back the Bay, a 300-page book developed by Marion and Mame Warren and designed to stand as testimony and evidence for bringing back the estuary he saw when he first arrived.
Through the decades his Chesapeake Bay images, scenic and wonderfully composed, were enlarged into beautiful prints and large posters still coveted as keepsakes. What often distinguishes Warren's books on the Bay, however, is the naturalness of the people in front of his camera. He clearly brought to his Bay explorations the people skills he learned as a portrait photographer and the friendly, kindly personality that put everybody at ease. Unlike A. Aubrey Bodine, he seldom posed his subjects because he wanted them to relax back into their natural lives and customary behaviors.
He was not focused on their placement in an artful composition. As he told a Bay Times reporter, he was after something else: "I realized that capturing life is the most vital thing photography can do — documenting the real life of people, their real existence. No other art can do it."
Where to Find Photographs
Marion E. Warren donated his photographs to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.