National Geographic Icon Luis Marden Dies

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
March 3, 2003

He had seemed the very spirit of the National Geographic Society. Therefore when the word was received, it spread quickly, even to the most remote of offices. Luis Marden is dead.

Former chief of the National Geographic foreign editorial staff, photographer, writer, filmmaker, diver, sailor, navigator, pilot, linguist, raconteur, boon companion—and oh yes, explorer—Luis Marden died this morning of complications from Parkinson's disease, in Arlington, Virginia. He was only 90 years old.

No one has quite summed up the National Geographic like Luis Marden. For over six decades—from the early 1930s to the late 1990s—he was usually found somewhere on the other side of the globe. But he was often enough seen in the halls and so was a familiar figure. For many years new employees being shown around might catch a glimpse of a bald man with a natty moustache quietly going about his business—but his passing was usually followed by awed whispers: "There goes Luis Marden…"

Marden was born on January 25, 1913 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. His real name was Annibale Luigi Paragallo, though as he grew up in nearby Quincy he went by Louis Paragallo. While attending Quincy High School, he was introduced to photography through a chemistry class. Fascinated with watching images appear from seemingly nowhere, he quickly became hooked.

He did not go to college, choosing freelance photography while working at a radio station instead. While he hosted a radio program, "Camera Club of the Air," the station owners felt Paragallo was too difficult a name for a radio audience. After casting around in a phonebook, they came up with Luis Marden instead.

Marden so steeped himself in matters photographic that by the time he was 19 years old, he had written a book, Color Photography with the Miniature Camera, quite likely the first book ever published on 35mm color photography.

This expertise eventually brought him to the National Geographic Society, which prided itself on publishing quality color photography. When he first walked through the doors, a 35mm camera around his neck, no one could know that the slim young man with the dark moustache would become what one writer would call "the epitome of the Geographic man."

Uncanny Timing

If one thing characterized his career, it was being the right man at the right time in the right place.

To begin with, when Marden was hired on July 23, 1934, photographers for the National Geographic magazine carried bulky cameras with tripods and glass plates into the field. But things were on the verge of change. Marden arrived at the right time, arguing that small 35mm cameras loaded with the new Kodachrome film would revolutionize color photography. His persistence soon paid off, and for decades the Geographic was noted for its dynamic color photography.

Because he could speak Spanish, during World War II he became the Society's "Latin America man," sent on long rambling assignments throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. Diving off Antigua in 1941, he saw his first coral reef—and decided he had to photograph its riches.

Again he was the right man at the right time in the right place. Underwater color photography was in its infancy, but in the mid-1950s, working with Jacques Cousteau aboard the Calypso, Marden pioneered many of the techniques still used in underwater color photography to this day. Diving became one of his passions.

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