1978

As artists in New York City, we inhabited a competitive world. It was one thing to feel frustrated that an artist we’d never met was being given a show in a gallery or museum; it was more personal if a friend adopted a technique that Mary Ann had developed or started photographing a subject I’d been exploring. In our own home, Mary Ann and I had to deal with each other’s creative egos every day. Who was getting more time for themselves; who was getting to spend more money? Which one of us was producing really good work? Who was getting what recognition? We knew the legendary story of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: two great artists who were lovers and living together when they were still emerging; the powerful gallerist Leo Castelli came to see Rauschenberg’s work to select paintings for a show, then spotted Johns’ work and gave Johns the show instead. A funny story, but one that cut close to the bone.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

She was particularly resourceful as an artist. Her work was big in size and impact, and that was a handicap, because big sculpture is hard to sell—it’s expensive, it’s heavy, and who has the space for it? There’s more room outside, so outdoor pieces are easier to sell; their downside is that they’re expensive to fabricate, especially cast in bronze or steel. Mary Ann became convinced that if she could produce one of those pieces on her own, she’d have an asset that would be irresistible to a gallery. Since she didn’t have the money, she drew on her love of materials and experimentation and came up with a method for fabricating fiberglass pieces that looked rusted and metallic, like Corten steel. She found an inexpensive fabricator in Queens who made molds from her "master” shapes and turned out multiple modules; then, in her studio, she coated the pieces with an outside layer of resin impregnated with iron powder; she took the pieces to the roof, sanded them smooth, and wrapped them with acid-soaked cloth; and voilà: an object that looked a hundred times heavier than its true weight. She dubbed the material “bonded iron,” and the pieces were impressive. Alas, the new material didn’t weather well. It was suited for indoor use only.

Rock In A Landslide

 
She dubbed the material ‘bonded iron,’ and the pieces were impressive.

When the winter of 1977-1978 arrived, and it got cold, everyone who’d been outside on 11th Street disappeared into their apartments. I wasn’t ready to go inside, and anyway, no one invited me. Bob, who like me had been a wrestler in high school, knew about a Puerto Rican boxing club in the basement of the Sirovitch Senior Center, on Twelfth Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. One afternoon I ventured in there, camera around my neck, feeling awkward and unsure where to begin. One of the coaches saw how uptight I was, so he came over, put his arm around me, and said, “We’re all family here.” I practically burst into tears.

 
 

I was experimenting with recording film, which could be pushed to the then very high speed of ASA 3200, and that first day I took this photo.

The boxing club became my new Duke’s Pizza Parlor, and I got to know two of the coaches very well, Cookie and Joe. I went to the gym daily, went to their Saturday night fight nights, accompanied them and their boxers when they competed in the celebrated New York City Golden Gloves boxing tournament, moved to new gyms with them when the senior center kicked them out, went to their homes, and did a color story on them for the German magazine GEO.

 
 
 

In 1978, as though to balance my time with the boxers, I also began spending time with Pistol, the leader of a small, highly local gang.

 

Pistol took me into places and out at times I would not have been able to go on my own. I kept my camera in a small bag and took it out carefully. Even so, more than once Pistol had to intervene to prevent me from being held up.

 

Shooting up—and showing the derring-do of any kid with curiosity and a measure of recklessness. In this neighborhood, heroin was what was easily available to play with. Some of these kids got addicted, some went to jail, some died of AIDS. But they didn’t start out all that different from any high-spirited kid anywhere else.

 
 

1978 was also the year I met Alice Rose George and did my first assignments for her, while she was editor-in-chief of the photo department at Time magazine. Alice sent me to Florida to photograph the Yankees spring training camp. She could only give me one day’s pay, but she flew me down and back and paid for a rental car. I found a friend to stay with and spent five days going to the ballpark and taking pictures of the team, most of them younger than I. Time didn’t publish any of my pictures, but I took them over to Gary Hoenig at The New York Times. He’d moved from The Week in Review to Sports Monday, and week after week, my photographs of Yankees spring training appeared in the paper.

 
 
 
 

The photo gigs I was getting were for a single day or half a day, its own kind of challenge but not long enough to explore a subject in any depth and for me, not long enough to get past the first, more obvious answers to an assignment. I’d extended the Yankees trip on my own, but the opportunity to do that was a rarity. National Geographic and Life magazines both offered longer term stories, but I didn’t fit their molds. A picture editor at Life told me I was too interested in photography for them. I think what he meant was that they depended on their photographers not to experiment too much and to deliver a specific formula of storytelling. I thought that’s what I was doing, but maybe I talked too much about all the different kinds of photographic work that excited me.

Then a colleague told me about a German magazine that was setting out to make its mark in the US, a sexy National Geographic that encouraged its writers and photographers to express their own quirks and passions: GEO, with a swanky office on the top floor at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street. I came up with a story from my own life, on a fox hunt that my late stepfather had been a member of, and I asked the picture editor who’d come over from Germany, Elisabeth Biondi, if she’d look at one weekend’s efforts, to decide whether they’d be interested. I arranged lodging with a cousin in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and I persuaded the doyenne of the hunt, Nancy Hannum, that a story was a grand idea. Elisabeth looked at my first weekend’s efforts and hired me to do the story, and I spent the next six to eight weekends in Unionville, photographing at the hunt, at the kennel, in people’s homes on Saturday mornings, while they donned the traditional hunting garb, and then again on Saturday evenings, while they relaxed after a bracing day on horseback.

 
 
 
 
 
 

In Unionville, I had my first experience of missing a photograph while on assignment. The roads there were narrow and winding, often flanked by steep embankments. Late one afternoon, after a long day taking pictures, I was heading to my cousin’s house for some Scotch and stories about life among the hunting set. As I entered one of those cuts between embankments, driving fast the way everyone did, I saw by the side of the road a young mother in riding clothes standing with her horse in front of a beautiful stone house, typical of the area. She was holding her tiny child, barely a toddler, on the horse’s back, and her smile conveyed that this was her child’s first time on a saddle. It was a picture perfect scene, and it disappeared in a flash. The cut between embankments was long, and it was several minutes before I could turn around. When I got back, horse, mother, and child were all gone. I didn’t have the forwardness or the sophistication to knock on the door and ask for a re-creation, or schedule one for another day, so I remember that scene vividly as one that got away.

 
 
Kelly Nowels