1981

I made an assemblage of the pictures I’d taken at the time of our wedding, the ones with me stuck in the foreground, four rectangles of nine pictures each. They were unexpected and funny, and they evoked the psychological progression from being single, to thinking about settling down, through to getting married. I called it “The Wedding of Narcissus.”

That grid of photos unexpectedly connected to my mother’s habit of looking down at the world, which I discovered was deep inside me and could surface in destructive ways. I showed the assemblage to a friend who got a mischievous look on his face and excitedly said that it would make a cool centerfold in the SOHO Weekly News, a hip alternative downtown weekly. Nice idea, right? Wrong. With no thought, and no control, I said something that I knew was condescending and disdainful and couldn’t shut off even as it curdled my stomach and made the blood rush from my head. My friend worked for the SOHO Weekly; what was the matter with me? I tried right away to make amends, but forget it—the damage was done. I knew that Mary Ann was brash and opinionated, and that people could find her pushy and offensive. I thought of myself as more cultured than that, yet here was upper-crust snobbery having just about the same effect.

—Rock In A Landslide

 

I don’t remember when the do-we-have-a-child conversation started. I do remember talking about it before we got married and went to Peru. It was part of the do-we-get-married conversation.

Child yes or no—the decision was made in the midst of the political currents of that moment. There were feminist artists who were intent on wresting control of their careers from the men who dominated decision-making in galleries and museums, and Mary Ann believed in their cause. She admired and later joined the Guerilla Girls, who used humor, wit, and provocation to call out art world gender and racial inequities. The more orthodox feminists, including some of our friends, were opposed to marriage and children—why get bogged down by the demands of a nuclear family? There was more important work to do.

Mary Ann was in a particularly macho niche, sculptors who work large scale, and she did worry that child rearing would swamp her career. My stance—maybe because I was five years younger, or because I was a man—was that we could balance making art and having a family.

Mary Ann liked her nest to be neat and comfortable; she was a wonderful cook; she could sew and enjoyed making clothes. Her second brother, Chris not Richard, was enough younger so she’d had a taste of what being a parent might be like. For all of her toughness and urgency to succeed, she relished the traditional female roles, and she found herself pulled in opposing directions. She thought of herself as a forceful negotiator and had made having a child a bargaining chip in our agreement to get married. Even with that commitment in place, there was still a lot of back and forth before we decided to go ahead. I think in her heart of hearts, she wanted a family all along.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
... she did worry that child rearing would swamp her career.
 

Mary Ann took on the have-a-child project like everything else in her life: envision, strategize, execute. She quit smoking. She was diligent about tracking her cycle so we could take advantage of when she was most fertile; she had us try positions that she said were most likely to result in pregnancy. And when I was away photographing farm country basketball, in a small town in Indiana, she told me over the phone that she was pregnant, and the writer and I shared a small bottle of champagne.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 
 
 

The basketball story didn’t get published because American GEO was sold to Knapp Publications, who catered to what they called “their very wealthy readers”—they already published Architectural Digest and Bon Appetit. The writer and I were looking at the differences in basketball as played in rural Indiana and on the West Side of Chicago, geographically close together but polar opposites in game style. The differences could be summed up by this one rule: when you’re playing half court in farm country and you make a basket, you give the ball to your opponent; in the city, when you make a basket you keep the ball. The editors at GEO loved the story when we turned it in, but it was not of interest to Knapp.

Not long after, I happened to show a couple of the basketball photos to a designer at Chermayeff and Geismar, a celebrated graphic design firm that was at that moment working on a re-do of the Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The designer loved the everyman-playing-basketball theme, bought a bunch of the photos for a mural in the lobby, and for a time, I had more pictures in the Basketball Hall of Fame than any other photographer.

The basketball story was one of two I did for GEO with a young writer named David Breskin. The other, shot the same year, was on mobile homes in America, and it in the end was also killed—not of interest to wealthy readers.

David and I drove from Tucson to Chicago, relying on serendipity and stopping wherever we saw something that fit the theme.

 
 
 

After we’d turned in the stories on mobile homes and basketball, I suggested to David that he come along as writer for a slice-of-America story on Otter Creek, Montana, a small and sparsely populated ranching community I’d had a connection with since a family trip there when I was nine. I persuaded American West magazine to accept our story proposal, and David persuaded IPC Films to underwrite the two of us for a movie development week exploring Gillette, Wyoming, a five-hour drive from Otter Creek. Gillette was an overwhelmingly male energy sector boomtown in the Powder River Basin—oil wells and open-pit coal mines. I got an additional assignment in the west, photographing Forest Lawn Cemetery for German GEO, so I went to Los Angeles for three weeks, then joined David for two weeks on the stories we’d lined up.

 
 

Forest Lawn Cemetery, CA

 

Otter Creek, MT

 

Gillette, WY

I saw a fight outside a bar between two brothers, the older repeatedly knocking down the younger, who kept staggering back up to prove himself, attacking and threatening and crying all at the same time. I stood and watched from the outer edge of the crowd. This kind of behavior was so foreign to me; I was incredulous that it was happening at all, much less seeing it as something I should take pictures of. My reticence was in some part validated when a huge young cowboy saw that I was a stranger and told me he was watching my back. “Bar fights are unpredictable,” he told me. “You never know when someone is going to run up from behind and knock you out.”

 
 

Later the same year, German GEO wanted to do a story on wealth and poverty in Acapulco, Mexico, a celebrated tourist destination with expensive high rise hotels, beautiful mansions owned by the Mexican elite, a big middle class of service industry workers, and a desperately poor population as well. The editors figured I’d photographed both the rich people who fox hunted and the poor people who boxed, so they sent me.

 
 
 
 
 

Assignments were fun, and they supported my personal work. It seemed I could dip my cup into the money stream anytime I wanted.


Mary Ann and I  belonged to a community of “emerging” artists, and we regularly had friends over to the loft to eat, drink, and share work. We discussed the latest shows and reviews, incredulous at one person’s recognition, approving of another’s. We worked outside the arts to pay the bills, while yearning to get a commercial gallery, a museum exhibition, and a New York Times review. With this golden triumvirate from the tastemakers—gallery sales plus museum show plus review—an artist’s stature could rise enough for her to quit her side job and live on making art alone. This was Mary Ann’s brave future toward which all her energies were bent. I too imagined my photographs from Alphabet City embraced by the critical and curatorial tastemakers of the photo world. In the meantime, I enjoyed being paid to travel and take pictures for a staggering variety of stories, and I took great satisfaction in regularly seeing my photographs published all over the world.

Rock In A Landslide

 
 

I wanted to complete my work in Alphabet City, so I pored over the work I’d done, editing and sequencing. Missing were overview pictures that showed what the neighborhood looked like. It wasn’t in my bones to take photos without people in them, but these did the job. And the Real Estate Management sign is a harbinger of the gentrification that was to come over the next decade.

 
 
Kelly Nowels