1992

What did Eve think about becoming a woman? I think she must have been scared. By the time she was ten, her mom had undergone radical mastectomies on both sides, had lost her hair twice, had reconstructed breasts, and was on a long-term regimen of hormone suppressants. One of Mary Ann’s studio assistants—the one who’d made the sculpture of an eviscerated female body that hung in our bathroom—was a transgender woman, and one of my shooting assistants was a transgender man still in transition. In her tenth year, Eve shaved her head and wore my ties, sampling hair loss, androgyny, and cross-dressing all at the same time.

Rock In A Landslide

 
 
 

My book Alphabet City was published this year. I’d started the project back in 1977 because I needed pictures to improve my portfolio, but I ended up documenting the neighborhood over a fifteen-year period. From the start, I kept thinking about what I was doing, trying to adapt to new circumstances and ideas. In 1982, I decided I was done, but I wasn’t able to find anyone interested in publishing the work, even as a magazine essay. Frustrating as that was, it allowed me to go on thinking about what I’d done, how it worked, and how it could be made more interesting. I came to realize that I wanted to hear what the people in the pictures had to say, so in the late 1980s I set out to find them, carrying a small portfolio of prints, walking the streets, knocking on doors, visiting social clubs. I found many people right where they’d been ten years earlier; others had moved to outer boroughs. I tracked them down, did tape-recorded interviews, and took new photographs. I stopped by the police precinct house that served Alphabet City, and a detective I’d never met recognized some of the people in the pictures who been arrested, convicted, and sentenced. He looked them up in order to give me their prison addresses, which wasn’t exactly legal, but it allowed me to write to those people and eventually to interview some of them where they were incarcerated. Some people had moved to Puerto Rico. I wrote to the addresses I’d gathered but got no responses. A colleague said, “Time to go to Puerto Rico!” So I did, hired a guide/driver/translator, and spent a week tracking down yet more of the people in my pictures.

There were three bodies of work to assemble: the photographs I’d taken at the beginning, the interview transcripts, and new shots of the same people. After figuring out the content and the sequence, it was time for more rejection. One publisher wrote, “If we’re going to do a book on Hispanics, it isn’t going to be this one.” Another called the work “relentlessly depressing.” But the University of California Press said yes, in part, I’ve always thought, because everyone who worked there had at some time or another lived in Alphabet City, with its low rents and hipster appeal. It was selected as a UC Press Centennial Book, to celebrate their hundredth year. Two reviews in particular stand out: one called it “as near a work of genius as I’ve seen lately.” The other said that I was a drug addict, a conclusion the reviewer came to because there was no other way I could have taken the pictures. That makes no sense to me as a working photographer; it’s really time, persistence, and seeing what’s around you that leads to intimacy in photographs. The reviewer’s comment was complimentary in its own way, but I asked Library Journal to print a correction.

 
 
I came to realize that I wanted to hear what the people in the pictures had to say.
 
 

Pistol was my focus for many months, and he took me everywhere. One night, he and Fabian and another friend went to a shed on the roof of a tenement to shoot heroin. It was a cold and clear winter night, and the midtown skyline was spectacular, dominated by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, sparkling down at us from another world. My sense of place was warped; the midtown skyline was more my world than the rooftop in Alphabet City.

I had scars on my arms that the guys had seen and had concluded, in spite of my denials, that I’d shot drugs too. That night, they offered to share their needles; I said no. We wandered out of the shed. The door from the stairs on the rooftop next door opened, throwing a shaft of light followed by a German Shepherd who bounded out, barking, startling and terrifying us. We ran to the shed, and Pistol and his friends leapt to the roof. I followed, but my leap fell short, and I hung by my elbows, plastered against the wall, my camera crushed in front of me. I thought the dog was going to chew my legs, and I thought, “This is like a Road Runner cartoon,” when Coyote is suspended in midair before falling to the canyon floor. Fabian reached down, grabbed my belt, and jerked me up to safety. A woman came onto the roof after the dog, apologizing profusely and saying, “He wouldn’t hurt anyone,” then said it was too cold to walk him on the street and she was sorry for letting him poop on the roof.

 
 
 
 
 

The photo above, of a woman walking through a social club, is one of three pictures from Alphabet City that were later accepted into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. It was included in a Recent Acquisitions show, hung next to a gritty Gordon Parks photograph of a scene in Harlem. I went and stood next to the picture to see what people said, but I didn’t hear any interesting comments. People kept on moving, glancing at the text panel, looking briefly at the picture, and went on to move past the Gordon Parks picture. This was the pinnacle toward which museum striving aimed; I wondered what the point was.

 
 
 

Our elevator operator at Third Street, a skinny man named Gilbert, was Puerto Rican and lived in Alphabet City. He was a fan of cock fighting, an illegal but thriving activity in New York City. He offered to take me to a fight, so late one night, we rendezvoused at the grocery store at Houston and Avenue D and then walked to a social club a few blocks south and west. We went to the back, then through a tunnel, down another passageway, and emerged into a small room largely occupied by a carpeted ring. Loud argument erupted instantly when I arrived. My Spanish wasn’t up to understanding every word, but it was clear that some people were yelling that I was an undercover policeman and others were ridiculing the idea. When the fights started, no one paid attention to me anymore. I was there all night.

 
 
Kelly Nowels