A GOLDEN EYE FOR A GOLDEN ERA

BILL GARRETT

An interview with photographer Fred J. Maroon (CC '95).


Most people can remember when the printed page—with expensive ink on good paper—was the medium of the most powerful and profitable form of communication on Earth, the mass-circulation illustrated magazines. Prominent among them: Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Paris Match, Holiday, Esquire, Smithsonian, and National Geographic.

Then, in a slow teeter-totter motion, as television’s market saturation rose, the great magazines’ power and profits declined. Many of the oldest and best of them, losing heart and money, folded. The golden era of magazines ended but they left a legacy: a taste and a market for good photography and the people who could provide it. Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstadt, Henri Cartier Bresson, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon, and many others reached fame and, sometimes, fortune as magazine photographers.

Add Washington, DC’s Fred Maroon to that list. One of the world’s most successful and talented photographers, over the years he contributed to all of the above publications and more. Recently, I talked with Fred about his career at his Georgetown home, made elegantly contemporary with design touches by Fred, a once-promising architect, and his wife and partner, Suzy Murnane Maroon. Suzy, an adventurer herself, has just returned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Fred reminisced about the glory years of magazine journalism after World War II, when circulations soared into the millions and advertisers flocked to their pages.

“The great consumer magazines showed the public what was important—who the movers and shakers were. They published the best writing and photography in depth. No one today in the print media exerts the power or influence of people like Ed Thompson, editor of Life for so many years, or Frank Zachary, art director of Holiday. The editors of the great magazines were brilliant, educated, had good taste, and were curious.”

Though photography dates from the early 1800s, it wasn’t until the halftone engraving process gave birth to the illustrated magazines that the still photograph became the medium for freeze-framing history for the masses, giving it the power to change history. Photographs of the Hindenberg explosion sealed the fate of dirigibles. The tragic faces of Okies escaping the dust bowl and Depression of the thirties empowered President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Images of emaciated holocaust survivors accelerated the creation of the state of Israel. The terrifying sight of battleships flung high over Bikini atoll by one H-bomb test helped reel the world back from the precipice of nuclear war. The picture of three-year-old John Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s coffin 36 years ago, etched this defining moment in the memory of all who have seen it. And Fred Maroon’s image of John Ehrlichman’s sneer symbolizes the confrontational last days of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

Such photographs were a rich mother lode for the mass-circulation magazines’ profits. And they spent lavishly to get them and to chase ever-larger circulations and more advertising dollars. “Their power gave photographers great entrée,” Fred recalls. “We met the leaders in science, politics, art, theater, and business because they welcomed the exposure we offered. We traveled far and lived well.”

Not always so well: Fred has had two knee operations and two shoulder repairs from lugging much-too heavy camera bags for much too long. He has been arrested often, jailed seven times, and spent one night awaiting execution at dawn. Now, with a portly mien bespeaking a successful career, he limps a bit from damage suffered along the way.

Fred might have missed this “good life” if, while still a student majoring in architecture, he hadn’t been lured into the romantic world of the magazine photographer by a job offer from Life. When he went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris on a scholarship in 1950 after graduating from the Catholic University of America, Life assigned him to its Paris bureau. It’s not surprising that a handsome young American student living in post-war Paris with Life magazine credentials and expense account money in his pocket might have relegated architecture to a back burner.

Unlike many photographers who specialize, Fred has always tackled the gamut—news, politics, fashion, food, travel. But he proudly claims one specialty. “I lived through the Depression and World War II, for which I am grateful, so I see the world as a cup half full, not half empty.”

Fred took as a personal mantra the lyrics of a Louis Prima song popular during his teen years: You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.

This approach was in tune with the times 30 years ago. “We didn’t go for the jugular. We tried to be objective. It wasn’t until after Watergate that advocacy journalism became the norm,” Fred noted.

AT THE HEART OF THE NEWS

[photo © 1999 by Fred J. Maroon.]
President Richard Nixon and the special assistant to the President for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger, hold an early morning chat in the doorway leading from the Oval Office into the Rose Garden.

All White House photographs from "The Nixon Years 1969–1974: White House to Watergate" © 1999 by Fred J. Maroon. Published by Abbeville Publishing Group.

In this era of TV bites, instant Internet news, Drudge Reports, half-truths, gossip, and innuendo, Fred’s approach might seem naïve and out of touch. As one who has gone elbow to elbow with the Washington and the world press corps, he has seldom been either. Fred’s talent, instinctive charm, persistence, and political neutrality gained him unusual access to the White House throughout the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. Some politicians understood and used the power of the photograph, while others feared it.

“Each Administration was different,” Fred recalls. “After Eisenhower, the Kennedy era was a big splash. The magazines couldn’t get enough pictures of them. John Kennedy was a natural. Jackie was sort of detached and aloof but she loved showing off the White House. The Johnsons were a piece of cake. They allowed incredible access. Politicians were not afraid of us in those days. One year I had almost 100 pages published on the Johnson White House.”

But the magazines didn’t want Nixon and he didn’t want them. He resented the Kennedy wealth but got along well with Jack when they were in the Senate. Both were anti-communist and both were personally quite conservative. And old Joe Kennedy liked Nixon. He once told him, “If my son doesn’t make it I’ll support you.’”

Even now, 25 years after the Watergate break-in, this long-ago access is again paying off for Fred. He had photographed the Nixon White House for a book and was doing a feature for Life on the Committee to Re-elect the President when the Watergate scandal erupted. He continued shooting—even capturing on film images of the paper shredder working overtime. Perhaps in the confusion the White House staff forgot who he was and why he was there.

For which historians will be forever grateful. Fred’s photojournalistic tour de force will stand for all time as required viewing for anyone who aspires to make sense of those wrenching Nixon years. At the recent opening of Fred’s Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Senator Patrick Leahy, dazzled as were all who saw it, said, “Watergate was a searing chapter of American history that, in many ways, shaped the politics and policies of the decades that followed....History will make final judgements about heroes and villains, but their presence will always be felt through these photographs.”

Photographs from this extensive archive were featured this past August in Newsweek, and are the subject of Fred’s latest book, The Nixon Years 1969- 1974: White House to Watergate. Some 121 of these photographs are currently hanging—a few as spectacular six by ten feet digital prints—in the exhibit, “Photographing History: Fred J. Maroon and the Nixon Years—1970-1974,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

 

[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
A tough and combative John D. Ehrlichman, chief domestic advisor to President Nixon, symbolized the confrontational demeanor which prevailed at the Senate Watergate hearings in July 1973.
[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
Employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President feed the shredding machine at CRP headquarters in June 1972.
[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
North Carolina Senator Sam Irwin, Democrat, swung a firm but fair gavel as chairman of the Senate Watergate hearings.

[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
A somber Attorney General John Mitchell and attorneys William Hundley and Plato Cacheris return to the Hotel Washington after a day of hearings.

[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
President Nixon strides briskly between the columns en route from the residence to his office in the West Wing.

A FLAIR FOR THE EXOTIC

[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
First Lady Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia Nixon Cox listen to the President's farewell address in the East Room of the White House on August 9, 1974.

Fred’s most exotic magazine project evolved from a series of eight fashion assignments for Look. He cleverly disdained the customary studio approach and was allowed to pick locations anywhere in the world. The closest to Georgetown was the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The most distant: Ghengis Khan’s ancient capital, Karakorum, 12,000 miles away in Mongolia. Possibly the most exciting: Afghanistan. The last photo shoot was on Alaska’s Juneau Ice Field above the Mendenhall Glacier. Traveling to such locations with dozens of cases of lights, cameras, clothing, assistants, and models was grueling. But for Maroon, there were compensations. “After some of the people and places I have had to shoot, working with beautiful, trained models with perfect hair in exotic locations was a joy.”

The Alaska take was scheduled for the October 19, 1971, issue of Look. Since he already had an article on President Nixon and one on Caribbean spices in that issue, Fred persuaded the editors to hold the fashion piece for the next issue. A big mistake. To the surprise of both its staff and Fred, Look folded that week. This is the first time any of the Alaska photographs have been published.

As other magazines and markets collapsed, their gravity fields sucked many photographers down with them. Fred’s career, though, seems driven by multi-stage rockets that lift him into a new orbit after each collapse. He moved from magazine to magazine and when opulently illustrated corporate annual reports became the rage, he was there. As stockholder revolts and shrinking profit margins dictated at least the appearance of corporate frugality, Fred was already into elegant picture books.

His 12 books range from gritty politics to a luscious coffee-table tome on the food of chef Jean-Louis Palladin, then owner of Watergate’s Jean-Louis restaurant. Though Fred’s assignments usually took him to distant locations, he photographed Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons without leaving his home studio in Georgetown. Jean-Louis prepared his culinary delights in the studio kitchen and Fred photographed them. Then, as a bonus, he ate his subjects.

His “cup half full” optimism convinces Fred that the best days for photography lie ahead. “People are flocking to museums to see original photographs. Digital prints are getting better and the best are now predicted to last eighty years. CD-Roms are fabulous for storing and shipping images. My photographs will soon be available on the Internet at www.digitaljournalist.org where they can again be seen by millions of people all over the world and can be bought by editors, collectors, and galleries. There will be new technologies we cannot even predict but creative photographers will be there to use them.”

Proof, if needed, of Fred’s talent for merging journalism and art: many of the great museums already hang Maroon prints in their permanent collections. But on a wall of his home shingled with accolades and honors hangs his most precious award—an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. As one wit defending the honorary degree said, “They are very special. Anyone can earn a Ph.D.”

Fred’s was honorary but well earned. His classroom was the world and his review committee included editors and the millions of readers who— informed, inspired and entertained by Fred’s work—have been giving him A’s for half a century.

[photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon] [photo ©1999 Fred J. Maroon]
Fred took fashion into the field in a series for Look magazine—moving models, baggage, and assistants worldwide from Ghengis Khan’s ancient capital of Karakorum, Mongolia, to the ice fields of Alaska.

All photographs courtesy of Fred J. Maroon.


photo of B. Garrett

Bill Garrett (CC ‘66) is a former editor of both the National Geographic Magazine and COSMOS.

 


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