The first assignments I got were from two sympathetic photo editors, Alice Rose George at Time Magazine and Gary Hoenig at the News of the Week in Review section of The New York Times. They liked my pictures, they liked my attitude, and they knew the best way to support a young photographer was to give him or her work. The Week In Review section covered politics more than anything else, so I got to photograph the New York City mayoral campaign and inauguration week in Washington, D.C., but I also got to photograph subjects as varied as those seen in the tearsheets below: on-the-job training in the construction trades and organ transplants.


Gary called one day and asked me to provide a photo for an article about changes in the juvenile justice system, and he suggested I get in touch with the public defenders who specialized in juveniles. They in turn connected me with Bob Siegal, a guy a year younger than me who through his work with youth while he’d been a student at NYU had established himself as an informal liaison between the court system and kids in Alphabet City who’d been arrested. We spent a weekend day wandering that neighborhood, from 14th Street on the north to Houston Street on the south, along the Avenues A, B, C, and D, and up and down the projects across the FDR Drive from the narrow East River Park. As we walked, we touched base with many families and youth that Bob worked with, and we spent time with one family in particular, trying to recreate a tragic mistake: someone had tossed a rock off the pedestrian bridge over the FDR Drive and had killed a passenger in a car speeding uptown. The boy and his mom and dad were in denial, but Bob believed this boy was the rock-tosser, and he patiently walked them through all that the boy had done that afternoon. Bob was intent on getting the boy and his parents to acknowledge what had happened and to ease the impending interactions with law enforcement and juvenile hall.

At the end of the day, I told Bob I wanted to spend time in the neighborhood taking pictures, and he was delighted. I called Gary at the Times and told him I couldn’t do the assignment because I wanted to enter the project slowly. Most unusually for photo editors, who work under deadline to get pictures for articles, Gary was sympathetic and encouraging, and at Bob’s suggestion, I started to hang out at Duke’s Pizza Parlor, on the corner of Eleventh Street and Avenue A. It was across the street from a bodega that served a block where there were a couple of sweat equity projects underway; it was across another street from a parochial elementary school; it was half a block from a public middle school; and it was a block north of Tompkins Square Park and the Boys Club. All those populations frequented the pizza parlor, and Duke was tolerant and even supportive of my presence.

The two photos below, of members of the same family, were taken on different days on the same street corner, in front of the bodega that sat across Avenue A from Dukie’s.

I told Bob I wanted to spend time in the neighborhood taking pictures, and he was delighted.

I kept going back, day after day. I brought hundreds of 5x7 inch prints to give away.

I shot over a thousand rolls of film that year, between personal work and assignments for the Times. I knew that Cartier-Bresson habitually shot ten rolls a day, and so did Garry Winogrand, two photographers whose work I admired tremendously and who photographed out in the world, like me, as opposed to in the studio. When Cartier-Bresson visited the US in the 1950s, a colleague gave him ten places to photograph in New York City. HCB reported that seven of them were a complete waste of time, two were okay, and one was terrific. I also read that when he was asked what kind of place he liked to take pictures, he answered, “Where luck hangs out.”

Kelly Nowels