Lesley Nowlin's gallery consists of two little rooms with a lot of impact.

Up a few stairs off West Sixth Street, the door opens onto the main exhibit space, whose gray walls are covered with photographs for "The Portrait," L. Nowlin Gallery's latest exhibit.

Nowlin, with short hair and a tiny silver nose stud, has an aura of confident determination as she sits at her desk, enveloped by the images she has selected. She is thrilled by her latest exhibition. "It's so diverse. This is my favorite show that I've done so far."

The diversity stands out, but so does Nowlin's eye for images with a forceful presence. They are by turns mystical, transcendent, gut-wrenching and comical. Most are black and white, and they're framed in silvery steel or blond or red wood, some thin and shallow, others set deep.

Nowlin, a well-known Austin photographer, began working as a gallerist in May of last year, after being approached by the Wally Workman Gallery, which joins the L. Nowlin Gallery at the hip.

The walls are mostly stripped of explanations, titles or lists of materials, giving them a streamlined look. Surrounded by the forms of so many provocative people, you realize the unique space a portrait occupies. "I love the face," Nowlin says. "I think it can tell so many stories."

The works average between $300 and $500, with a few that fairly can be called bargains. Take Austinite Megan Carney's stunning "Dad, Everyday," a vivid black-and-white image of her father and his reflection, as he dives into a glassy swimming pool, surrounded by foliage. It's at once moving and comical.

Then there are Nowlin's favorites, by London's Giuditta Del Vecchio. Two large, grainy, almost sepia portraits that came from a Proustian exercise: the subject stared at a picture from his childhood while the artist captured a long exposure. "It's eerie, beautiful and haunting," says Nowlin.

Raised in Austin, Nowlin moved to Boston after graduating college, but New England didn't quite take, so she used that time to photograph her own projects, like war protests and twins, an ongoing project for Nowlin, who's a twin herself.

Now she's been back for six years. "I came back because I needed connections, I needed work. I wanted to really focus on photography and not bartend or waitress," Nowlin says.

Nowlin continues to shoot her own works, and has recently embarked on a third business: mixed-media commissions.

Nowlin credits the East Austin Studio Tour with helping her get organized. "It just made me put my work together in frames and put a show together on my own."

It also led to her meeting with Rachel Haggarty of Wally Workman. When the F8 Gallery was about to close, Workman approached Nowlin and suggested she'd be a good fit for the space.

A year later, Nowlin is still enthusiastic. "It's about the print. I love the print. I love making an image come to life on paper, and it's purposeful and it's direct, and it's art. I like that idea, and that completion and that creation."

There remain some challenges. "I don't know how to sell art; I'm just learning," Nowlin says. "I just know what I like and I know what I want to put up here." Part of the challenge, she says, is locating clients who "love and want to buy black-and-white photography."

The latest group exhibit seems to have set a new spark for the gallery. "The Portrait" was L. Nowlin's first open call, and its first group show. She saw 200 submissions from 10 different countries, slicing it down to 40 photographers, 50 images and six countries.

Upcoming is a show of Polly Chandler's Polaroids, which will go up and then come down for a week so the L. Nowlin can show work from Bruce Davidson, the iconic Magnum photographer, after which the Chandler show goes back on the wall.

The momentum continued with this month's opening party, which Nowlin says "was so packed, it was uncomfortable." The old house got a little toasty. The two galleries make for a big gathering —"We ran out of 600 cups, that's all I know," she said.

L. Nowlin Gallery

'The Portrait' exhibit continues through Aug. 14

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays

Where: 1202-A W. Sixth St.

Information: www.lnowlingallery.com