With a thirty year career and assignments in over fifty countries, New Jersey-born Joe McNally’s images have been seen by millions the world over. His credits include covers for Fortune, Men’s Journal, Newsweek, New York, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and TIME. He has a 23-year relationship with National Geographic, and, as a young man, cut some of his photographic teeth as a staff photographer for LIFE.
Heading to college with the idea of becoming a journalist, he was required to take a photography class as part of his major. “That’s what spun me in a visual direction,” McNally recalls. “Then I stayed in school beyond that, because I really didn’t have enough training. I stayed for two more years and eventually got a master’s degree in photojournalism from Syracuse University.”
We caught up with McNally as he was on the road for a seminar and gearing up for the October 2010 release of his latest book, The LIFE Guide to Digital Photography. Being on the road is nothing new for McNally. Although born in New Jersey, his family moved often when he was a child. He reports his professional career has always been based in and around New York City.
Perhaps the constant moving during his formative years has helped McNally develop his adaptability skills. Working for a wide range of publications and corporate clients, not to mention navigating the personalities of countless local individuals the around the world, flexibility has been one of the keys to his continued success. “Every magazine has its own essential character or quality, and its own purview,” McNally explains. “Some magazines are generalist kind of magazines, some obviously vector in on a certain world, like Sports Illustrated. National Geographic tends to visit big themes: science, medicine, conservation, social geography, physical geography, that kind of thing. I think it’s a question of adaptability, when you work for a variety of people. You recognize their mission is paramount and you adapt your skills to implement that mission.”
Loving his life as a freelancer, a multitude of clients have come to rely on McNally’s strengths. They know his style, and what they can expect from him. These days, he sees magazines getting more specific about what they want. The vision of a creative photographer can be hampered by strict editorial mandates, but McNally finds ways to keep his clients happy by working within their guidelines, yet not sacrificing his talent. “That’s the beauty of shooting editorially,” he says. “You have a certain parameter, a certain story, a certain narrative you have to observe. Presumably the magazine has chosen you because of certain strengths you have that seem to be suited to the particular story at hand. So they really do rely on those strengths or skills to augment and represent the story in the way that you fashion it in the field.”
He works best when the editorial direction is not overwhelming. “There’s usually not a controlling force,” he says of his clients. “That is getting less so now, as magazines get more specific about what they want. Certainly cover stories or cover pictures have art direction components to them, but by and large, historically‑speaking, when I’ve been out to places for National Geographic or Sports Illustrated, there’s no directorial influence. It’s usually kind of wind you up and go. When you start to lay down lots of structure and preordained concepts and storyboards and whatnot, then it becomes more like ad shooting than editorial shooting.”
As magazines and newspapers continue to be assaulted on all sides by the continuing recession and declining numbers of readers, McNally appreciates the strain editors are under, and shoots accordingly. “I would say there’s a lot of art directors at magazines who are tremendously influential, as opposed to the more laissez faire attitude of days gone by,” he says. “I think magazines are more rigidly controlling their look, because their look defines their place in the market, and their place in the market is very hard‑won nowadays. There is more, I think, influence from home base, if you will, and there’s certainly more budgetary control.”
When asked about how much gear he takes on assignments, the economy plays a part in this, too. “No, it’s too expensive to always bring the kitchen sink,” he explains. “Certainly the budget on the job and the scope and the scale of it dictate things. I do an awful lot of work with small flash, as well as big flash. Some jobs are just very equipment‑intensive, other jobs not so much. What you bring with you is influenced greatly by the scale of the job and the least you can get away with, in some ways, because shipping equipment is very expensive nowadays. If you are hopefully a little more precise in your estimation of what’s needed in the field, you can save yourself a lot of money and a lot of heartache.”
On his blog, McNally regularly posts sketches of lighting scenarios. These were diagrams he created for his team to follow. Often times actual location conditions will force him to scrap his plans, and he needs to adjust lighting and other gear on the fly.
If you had to posit one thing which unifies the wide range of subject matter McNally shoots, it might be the compositions of his location shoots. Whether it’s a fisheye shot looking down from the antenna atop the Empire State Building to looking up at a group of swimmers passing by overhead (but not giving himself away by having any of his exhalation bubbles in the shot), McNally often composes in unfamiliar ways. “The push, I think, for any photographer is to try to come up with this picture that might be slightly different from another picture you’ve already seen,” he says. “Not always, but at least occasionally, that would be driven by simply getting your camera someplace where a camera doesn’t get to too often. You find yourself using a helicopter, or climbing something, or attaching the camera to something which hopefully returns a photograph that is at least unexpected. I enjoy it if I can come up with a photograph a little bit different. That’s what I push for, because that’s part of the job. If you do come up with something like that, you have a chance, anyway, of resting somebody’s eyeballs for more than a few seconds and getting them intrigued. That’s really your job as a storyteller is to get people involved in whatever the story is that you are telling.”
Aside from unfamiliar angles in some of his compositions, McNally also has been known to put unfamiliar elements together, such as his series of ballet dancers in locations far from the stage or dance studio. He has shot dancers everywhere from bombed-out apartment buildings to steam baths. “I always advocate to photographers to shoot that which they love, or that which they can’t help but shoot. For me, for many years, that has been a hobby within photography for me is dance work, because A: I think it’s very beautiful just de facto, just to look at it. B: I find dancers to be very artistically attuned themselves. When you ask them if they would be, say, adventuresome with you and become part of a tableau you’re creating, they often times will respond to that and become part of your imagination in a very wonderful way. I like dancers, they work very hard; they’re very creative people. The dance forms like ballet, to me, it’s all about pictures. It’s all about visual audacity and just the genius of a dancer beckons the camera constantly.”
As technology changes photography, McNally still values mentoring relationships, and is very much involved with educating other photographers. “I was blessed with knowing really great photographers when I started, and was mentored and educated in the field by some great picture editors,” he recalls. “That happens probably less so today, because the big staffs of photographers have largely dissipated, so there isn’t that collection of photographers at one place and time where the younger staffers would feed off of the older ones and learn. Digital is wonderful, but it also, for photographers, can be very isolating. The other type of community which sprung up in lieu of that, I think, has been the availability of workshops, lectures, and mentoring on the Internet and things like that.”
Seeing the Internet as taking the place of one-on-one mentorships of the past, McNally still enjoys meeting shooters of all kinds. The exchange he has with them is mutually beneficial. “I enjoy that contact with other photographers whether they are amateur or professional, young or veterans, whatever it might be,” he says. “I enjoy that contact, because I find I learn constantly in those kinds of situations.”
Between lectures, one-day seminars, and workshops, McNally estimates he teaches about half of each year. “Workshops can be intensive and hands-on as opposed to a discussion, which would be more lecture based, a showing of work and a discussion thereof,” he explains. “What we try to do at the workshops is push to be hands-on, push for it to be not just a lecture experience, but also a practical experience where the participants in the workshop not only see the instructor, myself or someone else, do something, they actually try to do it themselves. They get involved with the gear, or they get involved in a hands-on level.”
When asked about the wide range of his catalog, McNally points to photographers whom he was drawn to when coming out of school, such as W. Eugene Smith. “I really admired some of the photographers in the heyday of LIFE Magazine, and they were very versatile with cameras, to be sure. They can do a lot of different things. If I had a pattern I observed, it might have been that, but to take credit for that or say that I was the architect of my career in that way would probably be presuming too much. Some of it is certainly accidental. Do something for one magazine, another magazine sees it. Before you know it, you’ve done a few things across the board. I’ve always referred to myself, photographically speaking, if you used a sports analogy: I’m a pretty good utility infielder. I can play a lot of different positions at once, or I can do a lot of different things for the ball club. Maybe wouldn’t be the best at any one of them, but I can do a variety of different things with a camera in my hand.”
The cameras in his hands today are the Nikon D3S and D3X. He has put together his “basic workhorse kit,” which contains a 14-24mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm zoom lens. “I’ve been experimenting with a lot of minimum depth-of-field lately, and thankfully there have been some new lenses that have accommodated that interest,” he says. “Just in the last year or so, Nikon has come out with a 24/1.4, an 85/1.4, a 35/1.4, so those lenses are very intriguing to me because it’s a throw back in certain ways to where I started with them being prime lenses, and also being very fast, and also being very sharp wide open.”
Known for his speedlight work, McNally claims Nikon’s “the best flash system in the marketplace. It’s very intuitive. They’re light, but also powerful. It’s smart, it’s adaptive. Is it perfect? Absolutely not; no flash system is. But, in terms of creative control, I find it gives me a lot of intuitive, quick responses when you’re out there moving fast, which I really value.”
When he doesn’t have direct line of sight, McNally triggers his lights with PocketWizards. “Now, of course, with the Flexes and the Minis on the doorstep for the Nikon system, I’ve been involving those,” he says. “I look forward to that kind of control. That’s another adaptation potentially very valuable to be able to incorporate TTL into a radio signal. That is in our future, quite obviously. That’s potentially very envelope-enlarging in terms of creative control and flash.”
We asked McNally about his latest book, released October 2010. “It’s quite an honor to have written it, because it’s for my alma mater, LIFE Magazine. I’m the last staff photographer at LIFE. There were 90 of us, and I’m the last one. They approached me and asked me to write a guide to digital photography. It’s a book that starts real basic and goes through a whole series of step‑by‑step basic information, but it’s leavened with 30 years of field experience, so there’s hopefully material in there that even someone who is a little more advanced than someone who just got a camera would find interesting and valuable.”
Hopes for The LIFE Guide to Digital Photography are high, especially considering his last two books, The Moment it Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries, both cracked the top ten on Amazon.com. “We were very surprised and honored by that,” McNally says. “People seemed to really respond to the books, so hopefully this book, while it appeals to a different section of the photography enthusiast marketplace out there, hopefully it will be well received.”
As the world of photography, clients, and photographers continues to change, Joe McNally continues to adapt, build great images, and share with other photographers. The width and breadth of his career is nothing short of stunning. If he’s lecturing or running a workshop in a town near you, be sure to catch him. One day you’ll be able to tell younger shooters not only did you learn a lot, but that you spent time with the last staffer in the long line of great LIFE photographers.
Joe McNally Photography
Joe McNally blog
Written by Ron Egatz