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How a National Geographic Icon Took On the Cortés Trail

This month marks the anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan—modern-day Mexico City—to the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés in 1521.  Cortés’ journey from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan was a winding route through tropical and mountainous terrain that took the Spaniards across more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) and changed the course of history. Over...

Luis Marden explores Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, Mexico, in 1934
Luis Marden explores Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, Mexico, in 1934. Photograph by National Geographic

This month marks the anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan—modern-day Mexico City—to the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés in 1521.  Cortés’ journey from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan was a winding route through tropical and mountainous terrain that took the Spaniards across more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) and changed the course of history.

Over four hundred years later, a very different kind of explorer would follow in Cortés’ footsteps—a young National Geographic photographer by the name of Luis Marden.  He was fascinated by the story of Cortés’ conquest, and he had a quest of his own:  to write his first story for National Geographic magazine.

On Assignment in Mexico

Luis Marden is a National Geographic icon now—exactly the cosmopolitan, pith-helmet-wearing, world traveler that comes to mind when people think of the National Geographic Society.  But when Marden set off for Mexico in 1937 to follow Cortés’ route, he was just 24 years old and he’d completed a grand total of one foreign assignment, having been to the Yucatán a year earlier to shoot photographs for a story written by Maya expert Sylvanus Griswold Morley.

Marden wanted to write a National Geographic story of his own.  He’d spent hours charting out the route that Cortés had likely traveled, poring over maps and consulting the original manuscript of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of New Spain, an eyewitness account from the 16th century.  It was what Marden would later become known for—throwing himself wholeheartedly into all of his projects.

But his enthusiasm failed to impress his boss, illustrations chief Franklin Fisher.  He told Marden to forget about the article and stick to taking pictures.  With those instructions Marden boarded a ship to Veracruz.

Certainly, the logistics involved in taking pictures while traveling through the Mexican wilderness was a tough enough assignment for a newbie.  Marden’s primary mode of transportation for traveling the Cortés trail was car.  But there were significant stretches of the trail that were impassable by automobile and required Marden to travel by horseback, mule, dugout canoe, and even on foot.

He was using three formats to take his photographs.  This meant that all of his equipment—his heavy glass Findlay plates, his Dufay color film, and the new-fangled Kodachrome film for his 35mm camera—had to be hauled over swampy roads and up and down the sides of mountains.  Locals who saw Marden trekking around his tripod over his shoulder assumed he must be some sort of surveyor and referred to him as “Mr. Engineer.”

And then of course there were the technical difficulties of getting a good shot.  Cameras of the 1930s required both long exposure times and good light.  If the action shots in Marden’s photographs look a little stilted to the contemporary viewer, it’s because the subjects had to freeze in their poses while they waited for the photographer to take his shot.  Marden would later say that photographers giving themselves a crash course in a new language before jetting off for an assignment should make sure they knew how to say the phrase “hold still.”  Marden claimed that he, personally, knew the expression in five languages—including Mayan.

Bad Weather and a Good Luck Charm

Marden’s biggest challenge on the Cortés trail, photographically speaking, probably involved his trek up Mt. Popocatépetl.  According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Cortes’ captain, Diego de Ordáz, had been one of the first Europeans to climb the more than 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) to the summit, and Marden was determined to do the same, and to score what would be perhaps the first professional photograph of the crater at the top.

The day was sunny and clear when Marden and his three guides began their ascent.  But as they approached the summit, the weather began to take a turn for the worse.  Marden recalled:

We were, we calculated, within two hours of the top, when a rising wind began to whip particles of ice and snow off the hardening slopes.

In an unbelievably short time the sky had completely darkened, and snow began to fall in earnest.  The wind grew in violence until it became almost impossible to stand against it.  We could scarcely see each other through our dark snow glasses because of the whirling ice crystals and snow.

Eventually the conditions became so bad that Marden was forced to leave his guides behind with the mules and continue alone with nothing more than a small knapsack, which contained  “some limes, water, and a Leica—the last because the most cynical photographer is often an optimist where the weather is concerned.”  The pack also contained a good-luck charm that he had bought from an herb seller in Amecameca, which was supposed to guarantee Marden sunny skies for taking pictures.

Perhaps the herb seller was on to something, because just as Marden reached the top, the wind died down and the clouds receded.  And Marden’s shot turned out perfectly: thousands of National Geographic readers would later be able to see the tiny silhouettes of the guides perched before the enormous wall of Mt. Popocatépetl’s crater.  From that day on, Marden would keep the charm in his camera case.  (Although it seems he used up most of his good-weather luck that day on Popocatépetl.  Few photographers, it was later said, had as much rotten luck with weather as Luis Marden.)

Marden Takes to the Typewriter

Never mind that Marden’s boss had dismissed his proposal to write a story for the magazine—Marden had decided to forge ahead with his plans for an article.  In between shooting his photographs, he was taking notes, gathering material for what would be his first piece in National Geographic: “On the Cortés Trail.”

Marden wrote about the parakeet that was given to him as a gift by the mayor of Xico Viejo, a little green bird that would become his most loyal traveling companion on the Cortés trail.  He wrote about the Aztec temples at Zempoala.  He wrote about the strange quivering texture of the floating gardens at Mixquic.  He wrote about the nighttime view from a train station at Jalapa:

Paddle-shaped leaves of banana plants clicked softly in the night breeze, and in the deeper darkness of the valleys and hollows below us, myriads of fireflies wove intricate patterns of gleaming points.

Perhaps most entertainingly, he wrote about being in a theater in Perote watching Lily Pons sing “The Blue Danube” when an earthquake caused the lights to go out.  The experience was both frightening and funny and Marden managed to capture it with just the right amount of sangfroid:

Over the uproar a magnified voice thundered redundantly, “Calm is needed.  Calm, calm!” It was the manager speaking through the sound amplifier.  After a minute and forty seconds, the earth tremors suddenly ceased, leaving an anticlimactic silence.

“Keep your seats,” the metallic voice resumed.  There is no need for panic; all the doors are unlocked.  “Besides,” it added philosophically, “no one escapes his fate.”

When Marden arrived back to Washington, D.C., he took these observations and, working nights and weekends, produced his first article.  The result was one part history lesson, one part adventure tale, and one part travelogue—a vibrant snapshot of Mexico in the 1930s.  When it was accepted by the magazine for the September 1940 issue, Franklin Fisher told him that the next time he wrote an article, he might as well go ahead and write it on the magazine’s time.

Marden took his boss’ suggestion.  He went on to write more than forty articles for National Geographic on everything from lobsters to the U.S.S. Constitution.  His final story—a piece on his friend Jacques-Yves Cousteau—was published in 1998.

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Meet the Author

Alyson Foster
Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.