1983

 

During that special time after my first child arrived, I was taking lovely photos at home. I nonetheless felt the need to go out and photograph something outside my own family. I’d just gotten contact lenses and could get my eye all the way up to the camera finder; I’d seen some work in a show at the New York Public Library, photographs of the woods with the title From Chaos, Order; I was intrigued by the complexity of Lee Friedlander’s pictures of plants and trees. I decided to see what I could do in Central Park. I took pictures there over six or seven months, spanning 1982 and 1983. I love the way tiny figures are used to convey scale in the 19th century photographs of the American West, and played with that device.

 
I love the way tiny figures are used to convey scale in the 19th century photographs of the American West, and played with that device.
 
 
 
 
 
 

A day-to-day part of my getting assignments was the constant production of story proposals, based mostly on articles I found in The New York Times. I looked at the Wall Street Journal too, for stories on business for Fortune and sometimes other gems. WSJ always runs a feature article on the bottom of the front page, on off beat and unexpected subjects. They did a piece on BMX bicycle racing (more trophies made for that sport than any other in America), which I clipped and submitted to GEO. Knapp thought this one would appeal to their wealthy readers, so I packed my equipment and headed for the epicenters of the sport, Arizona and California.

 
 

Before I went west to make the pictures, one of the head editors buttonholed me and said they really wanted a picture that looked like the shot in ET of the kids sailing through the air on their bikes. I scouted for locations and found a spot overlooking the San Fernando Valley, and I found a willing rider. I was staying with a friend who was in the movie business, and when I told him what I was up to, he advised me to get the rider to sign an injury release before I started taking pictures. The magazines typically didn’t ask me to get model releases, but I put together something really simple and had the rider sign. He fell and broke his collarbone. I had mixed feelings about being off the hook for his injury, but he was a pro rider, he’d broken this particular bone before, and when I told GEO the whole story, they were thrilled. They were, after all, the deep pockets the rider would have gone after. The picture ran as the opening spread for the story.

 
They really wanted a picture that looked like the shot in ET of the kids sailing through the air on their bikes.
 
 
 
 

Fortune continued to ask me to photograph executives, and I gradually extended my client list. I liked the people I was asked to photograph. They were smart and good at their game. The men—practically all of them were men—often responded to my last name, asking if I was from Philadelphia. Then in 1984, the Mayflower Madam story broke, starring Sydney Biddle Barrows, a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. After that, there would always be an interlude in the photo session when my subjects asked if Barrows was my relative, and it was a short step from there to speculation about how high-class call girls must enjoy their work. I’d thought about whether Barrows was somehow a cut above a street pimp and had decided no, that both sold women and both were sleazy and criminal. My conclusions didn’t make much headway against the fantasies of the businessmen, so I’d sidestep that subject and move on to nicer topics.

 
 
 
 
 

Fortune tried me on more subjects. I spent one very productive afternoon at an army depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, making photographs for a story on the defense budget. That assignment gave me the cover of the international edition of Fortune, using a shot I got by listening to the people who worked at the depot. They asked if I wanted to see something cool, and I said Yes, so they set me on the end of a tank cannon and lifted me high up in the air, ran me up the side of a steep testing ramp, and brought the tank in the picture right up in front of me. The man standing at the bottom, on the right, providing a sense of scale, is critical to the success of the photo. I can’t remember if I asked him to stand there or if that was just good luck.

 
 

Getting a cover was a rarity for me. I had encountered colleagues who spent each week trying to get the covers of Time and Newsweek. One even made a tiny replica of Time magazine’s logo and affixed it to the ground glass inside his camera, so he could always be thinking about how his picture would work with their cover typography. I wasn’t able, or willing, to think that way. A picture editor once remarked that his job would be much easier if I would just take a step back and include more in my pictures, so he could crop them the way he wanted. I didn’t do it; his request was incomprehensible.

 
 

Alice Rose George, head picture editor at Fortune, had assigned me to photograph the arc of a production at the Metropolitan Opera when she was head picture editor at GEO. When Fortune decided to do a story about the Met and money, Alice remembered that I’d established a good rapport with the opera’s PR department, so I got to visit the Met’s facility in Weehawken, New Jersey, a low-rent and cost-saving location.

 
 
Kelly Nowels