1984

GEO continued to give me work, with Elisabeth Biondi at the helm of the photo department. Elisabeth liked the pictures from Peru that I’d taken on my honeymoon, and when the German edition decided to do a story on the highest standard gauge railroad in the world, she recommended me.

 

The railroad runs from Callao, the port of Lima, to Cerro de Pasco, a mining town high in the Andes—sea level to 14,000 feet—and even higher, to over 16,000 feet at its highest point.

 
 
 
 

Even though I didn’t have agency representation, I managed frequently to resell the pictures I’d shot on assignment. The work I’d done for American GEO on BMX bicycles caught the eye of a graphic designer friend, Cynthia Hart, and she persuaded Scholastic to use them for a “poster book,” with pages designed to be removed and hung on the wall.

 
 
 

Cynthia and I also collaborated on a 1985 BMX calendar.


Alice Rose George was firmly ensconced as head photo editor at Fortune, and she and her staff gave me a lot of work. She once told me that she liked that I never turned down a job, or turned my nose up at an assignment. I was eager to work, and I’d discovered that I might find a wonderful photograph in the most unpromising situation; and I could also be disappointed to find nothing in what had seemed like it was going to be a glorious opportunity. Chemistry, luck, what the light was like, how my week was going—everything mattered in the end. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I was astonished one day when a picture editor at Fortune casually remarked that thirty per cent of the time, photographers didn’t do a good job. He saw it not as a failure of the photographers, but rather as a fact of the business, something that he had to accept and work with.

Money touches everything, and that’s what Fortune covered. Over the next several years, they sent me to take many pictures of businessmen and women, and they sent me to cover all kinds of other subjects too.

 
She liked that I never turned down a job.
 
 
 
 

Robert Mullane, the Bally CEO, was willing to have me tag along through his day, from office to limo to home. The photos were excellent, showing him as personable and decisive, a family man and an effective executive. The PR department at Bally was thrilled.

I got a look while in Chicago at their most recent annual report, which was a very staged affair: models at exercise clubs and on roller coasters (they had recently acquired Six Flags). I made the case that they should use real people, documentary style, so when they asked me to make a photo, for a Bally newsletter, of the building in Baltimore that housed the Power Plant—which was in turn owned by Six Flags—they also asked me to spend an afternoon documenting the crowd. It was a challenge: show us that you can make pictures in your style that we would use in our annual report. The results were dismal, and there was no further work for me from Bally, not even in what they clearly saw as my sweet spot of photographing executives.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The family snapshot makes this like a harbinger of Showing, the project I’m working on now, in 2018, on the overlap of work and family.

 
 
 
 
 

As Eve grew up, and Mary Ann and I grew older, home life became more precious. I became less enthralled with the adventure of travel, even to places I’d never been or to photograph intriguing subjects. I increasingly sought corporate work, which was less fun but paid more. The liaisons at the companies were typically highly paid and anxious—they knew little about photography and were scared that I might make a decision that would cost them their job. Still, I was comfortable in those situations and at ease with people in power; I’d grown up in the establishment, and I enjoyed making executives look at once sympathetic and authoritative.

—Rock In A Landslide

 

I set out to make more money by showing my portfolio to graphic designers, who work with corporations, and the same thing happened again. I hadn’t shown my work to many places when I got a call from a world-class design firm wanting to know if I’d be interested in doing an annual report. The call was all but over when I was given the pro-forma question, Would I be comfortable working with an art director, and I blurted out, “Only if they’re not an asshole.” No surprise, I didn’t get the job. Amazingly, a designer from the same firm called within a week and gave me an enormously lucrative job for a telecommunications company. Although there were people who liked directness, both in me and in Mary Ann, it often felt like our successes were achieved in spite of our own worst impulses.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 
 

All the photos for the annual report were staged, either with MCI employees or in some cases with models. This one is the exception, a shot I found by chance in Brussels. The designer I was working and traveling with was bemused as he stood on the street and waited for me to fiddle around with the frame and the exposure, and he ended up using the picture, although it was just a bar with a phone number painted on the window.

 
 

The Director of Corporate Communications at MCI, Gail Knapp, gave us a lot of latitude in telling the story for each part of the report. For the two executives who led the company, William McGowan, seated in the photo, and Orville Wright, standing, we planned a series of pictures at a table. When Gail saw this picture, as the last in the series, she objected, saying, ”Do you have any idea how many shareholder phone calls I’m going to get if we use this picture? Where is Mr. Wright going? Is he leaving the company? What’s going on over there?”

 

My flaw was that I couldn’t control my drive to explore what interested me about pictures. I remember enthusiastically presenting the shot above, of a businessman perched on a bookcase, the metropolis of Manhattan, visible through a thin slice of window, stretching far behind him. He enigmatically contemplates something above our heads, while next to him his wife, in a framed photograph, gives us an amused and conspiratorial look. The graphic designer I was working for took one look at my pick and cried, “But he looks like a jerk!” I didn’t agree, and I don’t now, but such were the pitfalls of working for companies instead of for magazines.

I wanted the money of corporate work in order to spend more time at home; I was capable of delivering what the client wanted; but I would get distracted by the fun of discovering an odd juxtaposition, an intriguing quality of light, or an amusing gesture. I was just too interested in my own ideas. It was a quality I shared with Mary Ann. Sometimes we were confident, sometimes full of doubt, but we were always stubborn, determined, and driven by creative curiosity. We forged our own paths in art and in the rest of our lives.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
Kelly Nowels