By 1980, Mary Ann and I had been together for five years. My fervor to photograph in Alphabet City was cooling off. One day, at ten-thirty in the morning, I walked down the wrong block and was mugged by two men with knives. I remember throwing my money on the ground, yanking my camera away, turning to run, and falling like a tree. I was face down on the sidewalk; I looked at my glasses and thought, “Should I pick them up?” And then I was doing a hundred-yard dash, high-stepping down the middle of the street, camera in hand, glasses far behind. I went back to our building, and incredibly, Mary Ann was waiting for me on the sidewalk. Her intuition—her witch power—had told her I was in trouble, and she had come down to find me. I decided to step away from Alphabet City for a while.

—Rock In A Landslide


While exploring a pair of vacant and derelict buildings at the corner of Avenue A where First Street begins, I walked down some steps and turned a corner into an empty room. On the other side was a doorway with a nude woman hanging in it, her feet not four inches from the floor. I couldn’t take a picture. I later built a complicated rationale about not wanting my work in the Alphabet City community to be known for this one image, but in truth, pain and revulsion overtook any instinct to photograph. I later learned the history of what had happened there: the woman had been abducted and murdered the same day I saw her. I felt I’d gotten to a place I couldn’t enter, and that encounter became another reason to pull back from my work in the neighborhood.


I began casting about for a new subject to photograph, and Costa Manos, the photographer I’d worked for in Boston five years earlier, suggested that I visit Peru to seek inspiration, following in the footsteps of photographers whose work I admired, particularly Robert Frank. I proposed the trip to Mary Ann, and she lost her temper. She told me we had to get married first; she said, “I’m not going to travel around South America like your whore.” She was thirty-five, and though she wasn’t all that sure she wanted to have a child, I think looking back that she was worried she was getting too old.

Suddenly I wasn’t sure I wanted to be tied down. I started taking photos on the street with my arm out straight and the camera reversed. The subject sat in the background and my face peered into the frame from the close foreground. I took pictures of people I thought looked interesting, pictures when I was walking with Mary Ann or a friend or family member, and pictures when I spotted a woman I was attracted to. It was an absurd exercise, but it helped me envision myself in the world, and more importantly, myself with another woman. It helped me think about what it would take to start a new relationship and what I would lose by not being with Mary Ann. When I described to her what I was doing, she laughed. Where else was I going to find that kind of kindred spirit?

—Rock In A Landslide

Suddenly I wasn’t sure I wanted to be tied down.

We did get married, and then we went off to Peru for six weeks, much of which we spent in bed. It wasn’t for romance, though. We acted like cowboys and ate everything in sight, in market stalls, from street vendors, from people selling food through the windows at train stations, and we got sick again and again. We bought many artifacts, which Mary Ann lugged home in a crate we’d had built. I stayed behind to take more pictures, but only a few days after Mary Ann had left I realized I had hepatitis and came home.

My photographs from our honeymoon earned me my first artists’ grant.

—Rock In A Landslide


I dropped these photos off for the weekly portfolio review at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of the curators there, Susan Kismaric, told me that they’d spent a good deal of time enjoying this particular picture, of a local photographer in Cuzco using a paper negative process while his next model prepares. I asked her, “Why didn’t you buy the print?” and she said, “Oh, we don’t buy everything we like.” It was one of many learning moments for me in the various worlds of photography, this one being museums and institutions.


While Mary Ann and I were in Peru, the first democratic elections in a decade were in the campaigning stage. Fernando Belaúnde Terry, who’d been President and was deposed by a military coup in 1968, was campaigning in the Andes, and I pushed my way into one of his marches. The narrow and slippery cobblestone streets were jammed with tumultuous supporters, and his bodyguards were ferocious in keeping people away. I managed to get to the rim of the inner circle and slip inside. The guards roughly grabbed me to toss me out. I frantically yelled, “Periodista! Periodista!” over and over, and they changed their minds and let me in.


When I got back to New York, I called Gary Hoenig at The New York Times and asked if The Week in Review would be interested in the picture. Belaunde has just been re-elected, after more than ten years in exile, and the Times used my photo in their weekly roundup.

Kelly Nowels