Master Storyteller: Photographer Joe McNally

Joe McNally

TONY BENNETT: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY. LIFE ’s book on Tony Bennett features some of McNally’s photos of the legendary singer. Here, Bennett sits in a coffee shop in his old Queens neighborhood. McNally worked at Time Inc. as a young photographer with the likes of Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, John Loengard, Gjon Mili and Carl Mydans.

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.

Joe McNally
THE FUTURE OF FLYING. For a December 2003 cover story for National Geographic, McNally shot an X-47A Pegasus at California’s Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake with a Nikon D1X. It was a watershed moment—it was the first all-digital story in the magazine’s history. Today, McNally shoots mostly with the Nikon D5.

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”?

Joe McNally
KONA, HAWAII. McNally calls Hawaii 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.”

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.

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