The photographer Morris Engel was a New Yorker through and through. “He was just a city boy,” says his daughter, Mary Engel. “He didn’t drive. He never even went to California.” Born in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in 1918, he grew up near the amusement park in Coney Island, then settled on the Upper West Side, where he lived for 50 years. His wife, the photographer Ruth Orkin, captured Central Park from their window.

Engel didn’t receive a formal college education, but at age 18 he met a distinguished group of artists who invited him to join the Photo League cooperative. “He graduated from high school in Brooklyn, which he was very proud of,” says Mary. “Then the league became his art school, so to speak.” Among its members were pioneers such as Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott, and Paul Strand.

Engel’s only stint abroad—as a U.S. Navy photographer in Normandy from 1941 to 1946—inspired him to reconfigure, with help from the engineer Charles Woodruff, the Cunningham Combat Camera, a movie camera he had used during the war. The customization allowed him to focus two lenses simultaneously to take panoramic street photographs. He started dating Orkin in the 1950s, and together, with a portable camera he’d designed, they made the first successful independent film outside of Hollywood, Little Fugitive, in 1953.

After directing two more movies—Lovers and Lollipops and Weddings and Babies—Engel again began spending long, leisurely days walking around town, shooting pictures. “This was just returning to his roots,” Mary says. It was the subtleties, not the noise on the street, that interested Engel: the pleats in a woman’s suit, a reflection in a shopwindow, a homeless man’s stance while lounging on the sidewalk.

“He loved being the observer,” Mary explains. “There were aspects of not wanting to be, you know, the center of attention.”

Among his photographs from the 1980s, there is a series of black-and-white shots of telephone booths that Engel compiled in a scrapbook and set alongside a typewritten poem. After his death, in 2005, the book was stowed among the stuff in his apartment—empty film rolls, collages, books, and cans of film.

The series—published here for the first time—brings to mind a comment Engel jotted down in one of his notebooks. “Manhattan is my hunting ground,” he wrote. “My mind, my eye, and my camera search for the people on the avenues with their private smiles in public places.” —Elena Clavarino

Elena Clavarino is a Senior Editor at air mail