“Once I was on Air Force One,” says Joe Marquette. It’s a typical beginning to one of his many anecdotes.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist has spent his lifetime globetrotting with world leaders, snapping away for wire services like UPI, AP and Reuters. Today he sits in a recliner in his Midtown Tulsa home, chain-smoking Marlboros as we pore over the carelessly stacked photos and clippings representing 40+ years of his career. Though some are decades old, many of the images are surprisingly crisp and clear.
“We were flying from Albuquerque to some place in North Carolina. We went through a big thunderstorm—shouldn’t have gone through it. The plane dropped, I’d say 10,000 feet, in a matter of seconds. At the time, the stewards were serving a Mexican dinner. It looked like there’d been an axe murder in the cabin. Red sauce all over the walls. It was terrible. It was really funny…I took like two pictures, I used one of them.”
Now, at 74, the Detroit native finds himself in Tulsa, jobless and waxing nostalgic.
He describes a happenstance career that began when, as a budding 18 year-old photographer, he got a job as a courier at the Detroit News. He developed relationships with various photographers from the wire service United Press International. They eventually hired him.
“I was kind of lucky,” he remembers. “It’s really hard to get into. You gotta have a degree. I didn’t have a degree.”
Marquette was assigned to Minneapolis, where he says his career really started. He initially covered sports but moved into politics and was ultimately re-assigned to Washington D.C. “I covered summits, Presidential trips, Super Bowls, everything. A lot of White House. A lot of Capitol Hill, A lot of general news in DC.”
In addition to a sauce-splattered Air Force One, Marquette has captured George H.W. Bush being chased by a balloon-wielding political gorilla, Barbara Bush as a cross-eyed tennis pro and Newt Gingrich hosting a rodent in his hair. His photos document the fallout of the great political scandals of our time, including Iran-Contra, White Water, Abu Ghraib and the Clinton Impeachment, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize (along with a handful of fellow AP photographers). His shot of John Riggins scoring the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XVII was made into an iconic poster; his political images have graced the covers of newspapers and magazines around the world.
His career thrived, to say the least, until two years ago, when he left Washington to follow his girlfriend to Tulsa.
So how does a man with such an esteemed body of work find himself jobless when he doesn’t want to be?
“Poor economy,” Marquette gruffly responds.
Poor economy and lack of a worthy outlet. Though he insists that he wants to be working, his high standards have prevented him from even approaching local publications. Indeed, if there’s one topic the traditionally curt Marquette will expound on, it’s how much he loathes our city’s daily paper, which he calls “a high-class pennysaver.”
As we thumb through his collection, Marquette’s eyes arrive on one particularly striking capture of George Bush, Sr. seemingly drowning in the ocean.
“That’s a good one,” he says. “It was taken in Waikiki Beach, in Hawaii… I got my underwater camera because I thought that it might happen. I got up early in the morning, I saw the Secret Service, I went down and I jumped in the water with Bush.”
When I ask what he’s taken since his arrival in Tulsa, he confesses “Not a thing.” Inspiration has surrendered to frustration—it seems there’s no place in Tulsa for Marquette. Fortunately, his hiatus is hardly a permanent retirement. If he doesn’t find work here soon, he says, he’ll go back East.
Marquette’s experience falls in line with a sad Tulsa tradition that dates back 50 years. The sixties and seventies saw local photographers Larry Clark and Gaylord Herron ascend to world acclaim based on works created in and about Tulsa. New York and Paris celebrate them, yet neither has ever received so much as a solo exhibition of their work in Tulsa. Like Clark and Herron, Marquette has thus far been unable to find an outlet in Oklahoma willing to showcase—or pay for—his talent.
“I wanna go on,” he insists. “I don’t like not working, not having a full-time job. I have a hard time dealing with that.”