Higher Ed

‘Leaving a legacy’: UCSC alumnus and photographer Stephen Louis Marino captures student life through his lens

Alesandro Signorini revisiting campus in September 2021 with his partner Eva (standing).
(Courtesy of Stephen Louis Marino)

Stephen Louis Marino graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1982 but never really left. Marino is not employed by the university, but has taken and donated over 15,000 photos of the UCSC campus and students over the past two decades.

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Stephen Louis Marino, 62, is a self-described “shy man” who found a home at UC Santa Cruz in 1979. He said one of his biggest regrets was not taking enough photos when he was a student.

But given the more than 15,000 images he’s taken in the past two decades of the campus and its people, it seems he’s more than made up for that.

Though he’d been taking photos for years, Marino’s notoriety on campus really began in 2015 when he started posting photos on a student-run Facebook page — the Official Group of UCSC Students — that has about 26,000 members. He was astonished by the positive response he got from students.

“I was kind of surprised,” he said. “And obviously pleased, because I thought the photographs that I would be contributing, I didn’t think anybody would see them, and didn’t think anybody would really care. I mean, I just thought it would be nice to post a few.”

Before posting to Facebook, Marino said the majority of his photos were of landscapes and rarely ever of people, because he was too shy to approach them. After he realized students appreciated the photos he was taking, Marino said he began to have more confidence in asking students directly if he could take photos of them.

Most students at UCSC know Marino as the older man who frequents campus with a camera in hand, and those who get to know him call him a “sweetheart” and a “wholesome man.”

UCSC alumna Syd Chuck remembers running into Marino around campus on several occasions. She recalls waking up at 6 a.m. to watch the sunrise on the East Field with her roommate on multiple occasions, and running into Marino with his camera during several. The three of them would end up watching the sunrise together.

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“Stephen is very kind-hearted,” Chuck said. “He’s very nice and approachable and really friendly. He’s always around taking pictures and isn’t afraid to talk to people and he’s really easy to talk to. Don’t be afraid to approach him if you want your picture taken with something, because our campus is so beautiful.”

Students returning to campus this fall has not only brought back a sense of normalcy for students and faculty, but also for Marino, who has extensively photographed the bustling campus for more than two decades. The photographer continued his work through the COVID-19 pandemic and the CZU fire on an eerie and desolate campus. He said the experience was sad but necessary.

Stephen Louis Marino taking photos on the UCSC campus.
Stephen Louis Marino taking photos on the UCSC campus.
(Courtesy Isabella Elmore)

“What else was I going to do?” Marino said. “I wanted to take pictures people were asking for. During the fire there were people who were worried about the campus, because reports were vague. I could show them that there is smoke but the campus is fine, you know, creatures are still thriving.”

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Finding a way back to UCSC

Marino transferred to UCSC in 1979, when the student population was roughly 6,000 — a vastly different landscape compared to the campus now boasting a population of about 19,000. But even with that growth spurt in mind, Marino says the campus “looks exactly the same.”

“I mean when I think about it, it’s kind of eerie,” he said. “But I guess part of the charm is that it feels the same.”

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Marino was reluctant to leave when he graduated in 1982. He said he didn’t get to fully experience the campus, and was too shy to get involved in campus activities. He left UCSC with a bachelor’s degree in literature and creative writing and multiple computer science courses under his belt. After his gradual departure from Santa Cruz, Marino found himself in the Silicon Valley, working at Lockheed Martin.

It wasn’t a good fit, with Marino saying his two-and-a-half years there as being some of the worst in his life. But afterward, he found a new home with Santa Cruz Operation, a tech startup founded by UCSC graduates located at the base of the campus. After the company was sold in 2001, Marino began working as a tech writer for Hitachi Vantara, where he is today.

“I was astonished because I saw people that I knew from UCSC,” he said. “And so that became sort of an extension of my experience at UCSC, and I was there for 14 years. I loved being there precisely because it was so close to the campus and I was always meeting people that were coming out of UCSC.”

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During his time at the computer technology company, Marino would spend his lunch breaks at the UCSC campus overlooking Monterey Bay and snapping photos of the landscape. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he began to frequent the campus regularly.

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Marino’s legacy

Since then, Marino has donated over 15,000 photos to the UCSC photo archives. Marino is not employed by the university, but his work is used regularly in campus news releases, UCSC website homepages and flyers. The only compensation he receives for his donations comes from tax write-offs.

Marino published a photography book in 2021, almost 300 pages long, which features more than 500 photos of the UCSC campus and its inhabitants. But you can’t buy it. To get a copy requires a minimum donation of $30 to the Smith Society, which aims to provide UCSC students with a community of friends, financial help and mentors. Marino will mail a copy of the book to those who can show a donation receipt.

Marino has raised over $5,000 for the Smith Society since the book was published.

Bill Dickinson, founder of the Smith Society, said he has worked with Marino on multiple occasions.

“He’s just a sweetheart,” said Dickinson, who was a member of the Pioneer Class — the first class of students ever at UCSC. “And he’s got a visual eye that is pretty amazing and he’s up on the campus, constantly taking photographs. I think probably, there are more of Stephen’s photographs in the digital collection in the library than any other single photographer.

“Stephen does a better job than anybody I know among the early students for appreciating today’s students, and appreciating the continued beauty of the place,” Dickinson said. “He really is just one of the sweetest, most decent people I’ve ever known. But the main legacy he’ll leave behind is thousands and thousands of photographs of the place, and its inhabitants. That’s big.”

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In his forward to Marino’s book, Dickinson wrote:

“Today I choose to dub him as one of UCSC’s unsung heroes. He doesn’t seek publicity. He’s a modest man with a camera, constantly on the prowl for images that reflect a decades-long love affair.”

For Marino, posting photos on Facebook was just an afterthought, but his presence on campus quickly turned into something much bigger than he could have ever imagined.

“This is my legacy, these pictures will be here long after I’m gone,” Marino said. “Everybody wants to have something to leave behind.”