1967

In my Upper Middle year at Exeter, eleventh grade anywhere else, I won a New England Wrestling Championship. A friend of my roommate came by the next evening and said in a tone both caustic and admiring, “Congratulations, you just got into Harvard.”

“(My mother) was disinterested in my enthusiasms unless they corresponded to hers. Even off on my own at boarding school, I was still pressed under the thumb of her judgment. I remember coming home with my great boy achievement, a New England wrestling championship, expecting to be fêted, only to have my mother say, ‘Oh good, now you can quit.’”

Rock In A Landslide

 

There was a caricature of me in the yearbook the following spring, hopelessly entwined with a much beefier opponent but flashing the V sign for victory and displaying my missing front tooth—I had a false tooth on a “turtle,” a plastic plate molded to the roof of my mouth, that I took out when I competed, giving me a feral and frightening look. I wrestled at 140 pounds. The real joke of the caricature was that my much beefier opponent was my co-caption, Arthur Smiley, an extraordinarily gifted athlete who competed at heavyweight. I held my own once in an impromptu match with an Australian boy who wrestled 25 pounds heavier than me, but Arthur could have torn me limb from limb.

... but Arthur could have torn me limb from limb.

That summer, when I turned seventeen, I went on the Continental Tour by bicycle, traveling through England, France, Italy, and Austria. I took a camera with me, the same Baby Brownie Holiday Flash that I’d used in 1956 to photograph Roxanne, and the same camera we’d used to make the Stenka Razin and Dinner Party albums.

My older half sister, Christine, my father’s first child, was living in Paris. She was a strikingly beautiful woman who was working as a model and sharing an apartment with three other models. When I went to visit, she was out of sight, mysteriously sequestered, and her current boyfriend was dancing alone in the living room, dressed in a Sergeant Pepper-like costume. He was a photographer named Michael Cooper, and one of the roommates took me aside and told me he’d done the cover for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, released just a couple of months earlier. The scene was intimidating, but I managed to ask him how he’d done that cover; he told me they’d turned his whole studio into a giant collage and had the Beatles step into it.

Cooper had left by the time my sister emerged, and she and her roommates took me out to get lunch. The four models took my arms, two on each side, to promenade down one of the wide Parisian sidewalks. Beautiful young women, friends from the fashion world, kept appearing and joining our line, till I was walking arm in arm with twenty stunning women. I was thrilled, embarrassed, and delighted. A photographer darted in front of us and took a picture.

 
The scene was intimidating, but I managed to ask him how he’d done that cover.

That Christmas, in the middle of my senior year in high school, my stepfather gave me a Cavalier Auto Reflex camera, and I started taking pictures in earnest. I have a complicated memory of that day. We had a guest, a young man who left during the evening and ran off the road not far from our house. He appeared back at the front door bleeding copiously from a head wound. I raised my new camera, and my stepfather shut me down, calling me “horrible boy” for wanting to make a photograph of that dramatic moment. I’ve often wondered if any instincts I had to photograph calamity were quashed in that moment. I never did have whatever it took to take pictures of real violence, whether it was the riots I saw in college or the bar fights I saw on assignment in Wyoming—or the dead young woman I came upon in an abandoned building in New York City. When I was teaching, years later, I heard of a colleague who would stage his own arrest during one of his classes. The idea was, the students who didn’t respond by taking pictures didn’t have whatever it took to be a photojournalist. That probably would have been me.

 
 
Kelly Nowels