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Marilyn Szabo: A cactus-free look at Arizona in black and white

Marilyn Szabo (Photo by Ben Giles/Arizona Capitol Times)

Marilyn Szabo (Photo by Ben Giles/Arizona Capitol Times)

A walk around the horseshoe-shaped second floor of the Arizona state Senate provides a glimpse of Arizona history, thanks to a gallery of 40 photos curated by Marilyn Szabo. The photographer and historian has her collection, “At Work in Arizona: The First 100 Years” on display, featuring photos of the historic state Capitol, craters in Flagstaff and barbers in Mesa. Some of the images were taken by Szabo, but others she found during a 15-year process of locating the hundreds of photos featured in the collection, which was hired to curate by former Western Alliance Bank CEO James Lundy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cap Times Q&AWhat made you so well-suited for this history/photography project?

Well, I grew up in southern Virginia, and of course you know every year we got taken to Yorktown, Williamsburg, Jamestown, dah da dah da dah, so history was sort of embedded in me. So I got a degree in history, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and then I started taking a photo course. So in the meantime, photography wasn’t something anyone told me I could make a living at, which, I would not tell anyone that now. Anyway, I got a degree in history, and when I met up with James Lundy, who wanted to do this project, he asked me what my background is. Of course they liked that I had a degree in history and I’m a photographer.

What fascinates you about history?

I don’t know. I think history, what happened yesterday is history. So it’s important in our lives to understand what went on to understand what’s going on now and what’s gonna go on. And I just find that, the first thing that I always think about is, what’s the history? What happened here?

What was the vision for this project?

Mr. Lundy wanted the economic and commercial history of Arizona in black and white photography, old and new. He wanted to represent the iconic people of Arizona that helped the economy of Arizona, some of it good and bad, and of course the entrepreneur, and whether they won or not, and then the future, what’s happening now. Then of course some of it was based on their clients, and their clients were very interesting people that they dealt with. It’s a business bank, so he would lead me towards certain people.

Such as?

Well there’s Herb Owens. Herb Owens is a fantastic guy. He owns a company at 35th Avenue and Buckeye, (Precision Components, Inc.). And he started off, he managed Turf Paradise and was involved in that. And then he bought that piece of land the railroad runs through. So all the timber and building supplies were coming from the Northwest, and they were coming in there, and the truckers came in there to pick it all up — PCI Loading. So he was getting phone calls from some of the contractors around Arizona complaining, “You’re late. We never got it, we’re waiting.” And he said, “I don’t own that part.” So he bought his own trucks, and he guaranteed the delivery and eventually from that lot, he only delivers. He also has, he has race horses there, and then he has a palm tree farm, and it’s, all the weeding is done by the goats. And then he also had the El Mercado Grande, which he sold the most beer on the weekends in the entire state of Arizona… An incredible man.”

How’d you find all these photos?

Archives, research. I went online at 2 a.m. in the morning on eBay, I found great stuff. I went to estate sales, I found all kinds of photos. And I also bought photos from many of the photographers that I know, because I wanted to spread it. It wasn’t just about me. I have 80 photos in this book and over 100 in the collection, so I was taken care of. But since I came to Arizona I took photographs of everything. I went out and took photographs of the Concorde when it was at Sky Harbor (in 1998). No one paid me for that, I just did it because I wanted to see it. So when I stood in front of my negatives – the wall of negatives – and Mr. Lundy says, “What do you have?” what an opportunity. I just went through every notebook and said what about this? A picture of the Concorde at Sky Harbor? I think so.

Why black and white photos only?

I’m a black and white photographer. I began that way… the older photographs are black and white. And we didn’t want it to be like, it’s not a tourism thing like we’re trying to get you to come and look at the cactus. But we wanted a balance, we wanted to appeal to the masses and the people that live here. And this way, it was more informational. I don’t have pictures of cactuses.

What do you think the collection says about Arizona?

It was the wild, wild West. Arizona was amazing. It’s the same as all the Western states. You had all kinds of people coming here, to get here, and how they got here. I mean, Herb Owens is an amazing example.

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