Joe McNally is one of photography’s great storytellers, utilizing not only his images, but also the spoken and written word in the art of communication. Among his numerous books, two of them—The Moment It Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries—made Amazon’s top 10 list.
His balance of creativity and technical prowess has given the Connecticut-based photographer the opportunity to do a wide range of assignments for publications from LIFE and National Geographic to Sports Illustrated and People, and advertising clients from FedEx to the American Ballet Theatre. Perhaps his most personal and powerful series is Faces of Ground Zero—Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001, a collection of 246 giant Polaroid portraits taken in a studio in Manhattan in the days after the attack.
A Nikon USA Ambassador, McNally is a sought-after instructor and lecturer at venues including the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Eddie Adams Workshop, National Geographic Expeditions, Annenberg Space for Photography, a workshop in paradise at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on Hawaii’s Big Island, and at his alma mater, Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
DPP: You were colleagues in New York’s Time-LIFE building with many of the greatest names of 20th century photography. What did you take away from the experience?
Joe McNally: To work at Time Inc. as a young photographer was absolutely formative. I started with what you could call then the junior magazines, such as Discover and Money. All the photographers, including Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, John Loengard, Gjon Mili and Carl Mydans—who became my mentor at LIFE—would gather on the 28th floor to get lenses, film and supplies from the equipment booth. I would float down the hallway and run into Ralph Morse. I shot the first launches and landings of the space shuttle, and Ralph sat there with these young photographers and basically taught us how to do it. He was shooting, too. We were technically his competitors, but he was such a confident and generous man. That left a lasting impression on me. It’s part of the reason I teach now. I remember how those photographers mentored young photographers.
DPP: You mention Gjon Mili, whose lighting expertise is legendary.
McNally: I always admired Mr. Mili’s work. He was wonderful and very formal. I could say to Eisenstaedt, “Hey, Eisie,” but I would always call [Gjon] Mr. Mili. I’ve held the precision and elegance of his stroboscopic work, such as the ballerina, as the high bar and gone to school on it. It’s all the more impressive that they were created in an era when the tools were relatively crude in comparison to today. All those photographers built an archive of work that are the shoulders on which we stand.
DPP: How did you take these influences and create your own methodology, often working with multiple speedlights rather than going for the bigger strobe units?
McNally: I don’t claim that I was working in uncharted territories or doing anything groundbreaking, but I had to. For instance, the first cover story I did for National Geographic, “The Sense of Sight,” was a huge project. It was published in the November 1992 issue. I was traveling by myself doing this science story on the human eye without an assistant. I needed some level of artificial lighting to make that story come alive—to illustrate certain concepts or medical types of scenarios that were not necessarily de facto visually interesting, so I traveled with a couple of small speedlights in a Halliburton case. Some of the storytelling had to be done with conceptual work. For instance, I took a scan of the brain showing what areas of it were active when the eye is stimulated and then transposed that onto a human brain with multiple exposures that were partially strobe lit.
DPP: Another cover story for National Geographic, “The Future of Flying,” published in December 2003, was on the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, and that marked a significant moment in the magazine’s approach to photography.
McNally: It was the first all-digital story in the history of National Geographic. I shot that with the Nikon D1X. It was the first digital camera that I thought could come close to the quality of Kodachrome. These days I’m shooting mostly with the Nikon D5, but it was the D1X that opened the floodgates at the Geographic. The cover had a silhouetted plane and some pretty dramatic photos in there that coalesces to tell a story about the future of flight.
DPP: How did you end up becoming known for being able to cover a wide range of subject matter, including scientific photography, rather than being pigeonholed with a label such as “portraitist” or “sports photographer”?
McNally: It was never a decision. It’s a tribute to inertia, perhaps. Once I got going, it was hard to redirect. I was curious about a lot of different things and got assigned across the board. That was partially LIFE’s doing because the magazine was general interest. Mydans had formidable war coverage, but he also had tremendous feature work and was a good portrait photographer. Eisie could cover moments, but he could do glamour, as well, and was Sophia Loren’s favorite photographer. You look at the breadth of their work and it’s inspirational. The first magazine I shot for at Time Inc. was Discover, which was a science magazine. I shot for Money magazine and did family portraits of people who were getting advised about their IRA. People magazine had me doing celebrity assignments. I like to work. I enjoy the sound of the shutter. I love being behind the camera. The subject matter in front of the camera doesn’t have to be one particular thing for me to be compelled by it.
DPP: Also, your technical approach at times has changed drastically. Why did you shoot large Polaroids for your September 11th portrait project? [Editor’s Note: McNally’s large-format Polaroid work from the days just after the attack is breathtaking in its power and simplicity. McNally posed first responders and others who heeded the call to action against a simple backdrop, freezing their heroism and loss in time. While these images weren’t created digitally, they’ve been reproduced digitally all over the world, and they’re one of the starkest examples of the simplicity of storytelling in McNally’s career.]
McNally: It seemed to suit the moment. The giant Polaroid was one of a kind, and it happened to be located near Ground Zero at the Moby C Studio. The final portrait would be rendered with a certain degree of stature. It had an element of old-time portraiture harking back to the days when people had to sit in a chair with a neck brace to stay still, so it was very formal, giving it a very different tone and quality from the journalism that was being done at Ground Zero. Hopefully, I was telling another side of the story.
DPP: What are the technical aspects of working with the huge Polaroids?
McNally: The Polaroid would come off rolls, and we would have to do tests with each roll because the ISO would vary. There was no shutter on the lens, so I had to work camera obscura and pull the cap off the lens. Then the exposure was made with flash. The people had to stay relatively still for 20 to 30 seconds in the dark while we got the camera prepared after I got them in the zone of focus—at ƒ/45, I had only a half an inch depth of field.
The camera itself is the size of a one-car garage. It’s a life-size camera. Every frame that came out of there was rendered as a Polaroid positive that was 40×80 inches. When they’re framed, they’re 4×9 feet. Every exposure cost $300. It’s processed with big rollers. You squeeze it through the chemistry, then peel the backing off 90 seconds later. It’s the exact same Polaroid film that you would put in a small Polaroid camera.
DPP: How many exposures would you do of each person?
McNally: Generally speaking, one. We had the exposure down. It was a flash exposure, ƒ/45, about 30,000 watt seconds of light with Profoto 2400w/s studio units. The only time I would have to go to a second one would be if someone drifted out of focus or had their eyes closed. Jason Cascone, who was a particularly important individual for the series, has the record with four. He was a probationary firefighter with the FDNY whose first day of work was 9/11, so his story is very interesting. He was given last rites by a Catholic priest, put on a bus and sent to the pit. Now he’s the youngest chief in the history of the New York Fire Department.
DPP: You used studio lights rather than speedlights for this poignant series, obviously because of the power needed.
McNally: My lighting depends on the nature of the job. I use speedlights a great deal, but I also use 2400w/s studio units and location battery units—I use Profoto B1s a great deal. I use all manner of light shapers, from beauty dishes to big octagon softboxes. They’re just tools to achieve hard light, soft light. It’s really about what you’re crafting at that moment in response to a portrait subject or a scene.
As speedlights have grown in popularity, more and more manufacturers have come out with a whole variety of light-shaping tools for them, from small beauty dishes to softboxes. There are also frames that allow you to put multiple flashes into one light shaper, like a big umbrella to ramp up the power. There are a wide range of lighting solutions available.
DPP: You demonstrate many of these at your workshops. How do you get your students to create stronger single images, as well as tell stories with their cameras?
McNally: People who come to the workshops are there basically to do one thing: make their pictures better. I tell them, “While we’re talking, about 10 million pictures are being shot, and most of them stink. In this visual glut, how do you make your pictures noticed? How do we get somebody who’s visually jaded, which we all are, to pause for even a moment?” I read something recently about Instagram strategies, that in the last couple of years our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. So if you’re going to grab somebody’s eyes and make them compelled by your picture and lead them into a story that you want to tell, the pictures have to be pretty damn good.
DPP: What would serve as some examples from your workshops?
McNally: Kona, where I teach a workshop at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, is the perfect laboratory to experiment with light. In an average day you’ll have this wonderful sunrise, then hard strong tropical light throughout the day, oftentimes mixed in with dramatic clouds, then invariably have this gorgeous sunset. So light fluctuates throughout the day not only in terms of intensity and shape but also color.
Everybody gravitates toward the beautiful light at the end of the day, so I add a fire twirler in there. How can you shoot that so it looks natural and not like you stepped on it with your own technique? The fire itself is sometimes not enough to freeze your subject. If you expose for the fire, it will often get very bleachy. If you’re not careful, by overexposing it you can take what was a beautiful orange fire and make it white, and the magic is gone.
So what we do is dovetail the exposure of the fire with the exposure of a flash with a warming gel, making it look like the color of fire. You’re stopping the action with a flash, but it looks like the actual flame is lighting the twirler so you don’t see the hand of the photographer. For that type of scenario, rear sync is advisable.
The thing that I always come back to is being a visual storyteller and making pictures connect. We live in a world where one-off things are predominate. You’re flipping through the Internet at a really high rate of speed. What you’re trying to do is get people to stop and get interested, and then lead them on this journey from picture to picture that has pace and information and connectivity either stylistically or emotionally. You pull the person through that experience. That’s what you’re hoping for as a photographer, to convey effectively what you’re seeing. You’re having this real physical adventure that you’re trying to translate through a camera and let somebody else experience it who can’t be there with you.