Though he graduated from Catholic University in 1950 as an architect, his reputation as a young tyro photographer already was fixed. Hired by Life Magazine in New York largely on the basis of his yearbook work at Catholic, Maroon had been tempted to chuck architecture and go to work as a photographer when the news came that he had won a scholarship to do graduate architectural study in Paris.
His editors at Life encouraged him to take the scholarship and even offered to make him a stringer in Life's Paris Bureau during his year abroad.
Sound like a fairy tale? Wait. When young Fred showed up, with fresh face and sharp pencils, at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts, he was told that the incoming class of wannabe architects was unusually large that year and that he would therefore be asked to complete only every other six-week design project, the intervening time being his to spend as he liked.
Footloose in postwar Europe. On Life's payroll. With free time doled out in six-week chunks.
There is a part of me that thinks God is a photography buff. How else to explain the way events conspired to turn Fred Maroon away from the drafting table and out into the streets of the world where he spent the rest of his life making wonderful pictures?
The results of Fred's 1950-51 European odyssey are currently on display at the spectacularly expanded Kathleen Ewing Gallery in downtown Washington. In a way, the show marks a fond farewell and a great new beginning. I remember going over these wonderful European pictures with Fred a year or so before his death. It was clear from our meeting at his home, one of our last, that Fred had a special fondness for this work. "This was the show that Fred wanted to do...I think he wanted to be seen in this light," Kathleen Ewing told me this week as we walked through the exhibition-beautifully hung and lit in the elegant grand exhibition parlor that now is the centerpiece of her "venerable" gallery.
I say venerable only because Kathleen has been at this business for more than two decades and is rightfully viewed, even at her tender age, as the grande dame of the Washington photography community. The simply beautiful 2,000 square-foot gallery expansion-which literally doubled her exhibition space while letting her keep her familiar location on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle-was a happy confluence of events when her landlord decided to build a new structure atop the parking garage that sat directly behind the gallery.
"The opportunity (came) when the landlord decided to build out," Kathleen said. It then was up to her to see if she wanted to use the new space for herself-or, after years of cramped quarters, simply pick up and move.
"We have been in this location for 19 years," Ewing said, noting that "continuity of location" is important to an art gallery if it wants to hold onto its client list and generally stay on everyone's radar. "We thought about what it would cost to move," she said, then gulped and searched for an architect to design the expansion.
What Washington architect Jeff Stoiber produced is a creative blend of the classical and funky. The white columns that invite viewers into the main hall are elegant, yet once there, you are wrapped in the warmth of original exposed brick. And there's also one great bow to the past. Turn left into the new room and you see what had been the original back of the building, including two casement windows with their traditional exterior treatments. These are the windows you would have looked up to from the alleyway. Now it's as if you had been elevated two storeys to see these windows face to face, as it were.
Originally, Kathleen wanted to inaugurate her new space with Fred's show, when the gallery formally unveiled it in June. But she also felt that she and her staff needed to spend time getting used to the space, and so Fred's show was pushed back to the more traditional opening of the fall art season.
This exhibition is a celebration of the best that is available light street photography and gives the viewer a panoramic view of what Fred called "the sorrow and splendor" of Europe after the Second World War. Though he admitted that he never was one to linger on life's dark side, the journalist in Fred-even at 26-could not help but record the desolation and poverty of Spain and Yugoslavia, even five years after the European war had ended. His architecture-trained eye also gave us marvelous black and white views of Europe's urban jewels: the Cathedral at Chartres, Venice's Piazza San Marco, Paris' Place de la Concord.
What is remarkable is the sureness of Fred's eye. Surely this is the work of a seasoned photojournalist like Cartier-Bresson, not some wet-behind-the-ears college kid who isn't even sure he wants to be a photographer.
But it was and it is. And in Fred's own captions to many of these images, one can share the excitement and the joy of someone coming to realize that he is doing what he will come to love.
"I had just turned 26," he wrote, "and my interests reflected my age. Goteborg, on the west coast of Sweden, was my first port-of-call after leaving the United States in September 1950 and one of the most memorable experiences for me there was the daily promenade of young people. Each evening they seemed to take possession of the entire center of the city-the girls on the inner ring, walking in one direction, laughing and giddy, and the boys on the outer ring, walking in the other direction, and appraising...."
Fred Maroon was there to capture it all on film as a young man. Fifty years later, near the end of a full and happy life as a husband, father and photographer, he still viewed this work as among his best.
It was and it is.
Sorrow and Splendor: Images of Europe, 1950-1951, by Fred J. Maroon. Through October 2. Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Avenue NW. Wed-Sat. noon to 5 and by appointment. 202-328-0955.
[Animal Attraction: A woman of many parts, Kathleen Ewing also a great friend of the Washington Animal Rescue League and "hosts" dogs and cats for adoption every Saturday at her gallery from noon to 3pm. Call for information.]
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.