Fred Maroon Remembered -
Forever the "Amateur"

by Frank Van Riper

He was never a polished public speaker, though he spoke in public frequently and well, and always to enthusiastic audiences.

His ideas, his reminiscences, his own enthusiasm, always threatened to outrace his delivery. But if Fred Maroon, who died this week at age 77 after a long battle with cancer, minded that he did not have the stentorian delivery of a professional talker, he never showed it.

All that proved, he might have said, is that as a speaker he was an "amateur," just as he often described himself as an amateur photographer.

My longtime friend and colleague, who will be remembered as one of the finest photographers of his generation, delighted in telling audiences that despite any renown he had achieved over half a century he viewed himself as an amateur - and hoped he always would be one.

Because "amateur," Fred would say, is based on the Latin word "amare" - to love. And an amateur is someone who does something simply for the love of it.

And oh how Fred Maroon could love: photography, his wife and partner Suzy, his kids, his friends, good food. Life itself.

He even loved Washington, DC with a patriot's forgiveness of its foibles and faults. It was no accident that of the dozen or so books he produced during a stunningly varied career, the best reflect life in the Capital City. Maroon on Georgetown, first published in 1985, became an instant classic for its elegant, sympathetic portrayal of DC's most famous neighborhood.

His later books, The United States Capitol, followed by The Supreme Court of the United States - each in its way a masterpiece of composition and lighting - were part of a hoped-for trilogy on the three branches of government. But the Clinton White House, not illness, thwarted Maroon's plan, never giving him the necessary time, much less permission, to photograph the executive mansion.

Still, Fred never was one to sit around looking for something to do. The years he would have spent photographing The White House were instead spent putting together what arguably was his most important exhibition ever: a huge show of his work during the Watergate era, first shown at the National Museum of American History in a rare and beautiful tribute to one photographer's work. Covering one of the most turbulent times in US political history, these pictures also were published in the book The Nixon Years/ White House to Watergate, and give the lie to the notion that Fred Maroon was primarily an architectural or landscape shooter. This is black and white photojournalism at its best, done on the fly, virtually all by available light.

It was at the Watergate hearings in 1973 that I first met Fred, one of the several score shooters who roamed halls of the Old Senate Office Building, where the hearings were held, or who peopled the photographers' moshpit at the front of the witness table. Interestingly, though Fred did not know it at the time, he already had a valuable and historic photo record completed even before the first hearings into the scandal surrounding the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Office Building. Early in the Nixon administration Maroon had suggested to Life Magazine a behind-the-scenes story of life in the Nixon White House and had been granted exclusive access to many of the people who later would become household faces, as the scandal over the break-in and the subsequent White House-financed coverup blossomed.

"I was doing [that story] when they broke into the Watergate," Fred recalled. The images Fred had made in the months before the Watergate break-in--the only ones of the white collar Watergate conspirators at work--were eagerly sought by a number of magazines to augment their coverage of the scandal. And all because, Maroon had taken a chance and suggested a story few had been interested in at the time.

"I can't emphasize too much the importance of risk-taking," Maroon once told a high school audience. "America is, after all, a nation of adventurers."

Fred Maroon was a Jersey boy, who grew up at the corner of Throop and Hale in New Brunswick, NJ. He thought he would become an architect, even graduating with a degree in architecture from Catholic University here. Back then, photography was, at best, a hobby.

But even if Maroon didn't realize his own talents as a shooter, others did - and that let to the kind of chance young photographers only dream of today: a shot at the old (and legendary) Life Magazine, right out of college.

"I did the yearbook at Catholic University," Fred told me once during a relaxed conversation. "I was in my senior year and they elected me the editor. I decided to pull out all the stops and that book, when it was on press, was on press where Life Magazine had their engravings done. And the people there said [to Life's art director] "you gotta look at this book, at what these kids are doing at this college in Washington."

Of course, "these kids" were basically Fred Maroon, who took virtually all of the photographs for the book and packaged it. Decades later, another friend showed me Fred's yearbook - as well as one that came out the following year, after Fred was gone. The difference is staggering. Fred's was an edgy, moody beautifully orchestrated portrait of the school and the people in it; the other was, well, a college yearbook.

"I got a letter about a month before graduation saying "if you're interested in a job, we'd like to talk to you.' That floored me! I was planning to take my drawings and go look for an architectural drafting job. Anyway, Life said they'd make me an editorial trainee and that I would have this sum at my disposal. Anytime I needed money I just drew from it whatever I wanted. It was just fantastic."

Maroon may have pinched himself for this good luck but he never took it for granted. A prolific shooter, he quickly built a reputation as someone who could photograph just about anything. In his early magazine-shooter days, especially for the old Look Magazine, Fred also could shoot color fashion layouts with the best of them, often traveling to exotic locales that never saw a photographer, much less a 6-foot-tall model, to produce spreads that his editors loved.

All this is in marked contrast to today, when the conventional wisdom is for a young shooter to develop a specialty and stick with it. Part of the reason was the nature of the game back then. "It was not very expensive to be a photographer," Fred reminded me. "Cameras didn't cost that much, you didn't have all those film choices you now have. You could operate on a shoestring. Now though, you have to turn out a much more sophisticated product."

Still, for all of the sophistication - and gadgetry - required to succeed as a photographer today, I prefer to remember this dear and gentle friend with only one of his beloved Leica SLRs around his neck, stalking a story with a bemused, if eagle-sharp, eye. To be sure, Fred knew about elaborate lighting: for his book on the Capitol, Maroon and his assistants regularly assembled scaffolding with thousands of watts of illumination to light a scene.

For all that, though, I love the story Fred told me about Anwar Sadat. Allowed to make the Egyptian President's official portrait (one year before Sadat was assassinated), Maroon showed up with his Leicas and very little else.

"Where's your equipment?" one of Sadat's aides asked. "This is it," Fred said, pointing to his camera bag.

"You're going to take this big man with that little camera?"


When it was all over, the President's office ordered 1,500 11x14's.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books.) He can be reached at

You can see Fred Maroon's Photo Gallery of "The Nixon Years" from our August 1999 issue by clicking here.

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