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Joe McNally Dishes “The Real Deal”

Nearly twenty years ago, I came across Joe McNally’s photo of a Northrop Grumman X-47A Pegasus that he took for a National Geographic story entit...

Nearly twenty years ago, I came across Joe McNally’s photo of a Northrop Grumman X-47A Pegasus that he took for a National Geographic story entitled “The Future of Flying Faster Farther Smarter.” The piece was notable for being the magazine’s first to feature all-digital photography, but I was more taken by Joe’s image – shot at sunrise, Joe partially lit the scene by affixing a bunch of speedlight flashes to the undercarriage of the plane. I had never seen an image like it, and it felt a bit revelatory like “you can do that with photography?”

So it goes with much of Joe’s photography. After the sensation of disbelief at his creativity and technical prowess passes, you’re left with a feeling of inspiration and an urge to make better photos. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Joe for many years, and besides being one of the most versatile and talented photographers on the planet, he’s also been genuinely candid about the trials and tribulations of his professional career. He’s generously shared his knowledge and experiences with others, so when he told me that he had been working on a new book during the pandemic, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer” (Rocky Nook) is part memoir, part business advice, and part technical notes. If you’ve ever contemplated a life in photography – especially as a freelancer – this is a must read (and the photos aren’t so bad either!). Joe’s writing is crisp and entertaining, and it’s a surprisingly quick read even at 378 pages.

I reached out to Joe via e-mail after finishing the book to get more of the real deal.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Photo by Joe McNally.

PhotoShelter: You partially allude to it in the book, but would you have ever completed this book without the pandemic suddenly halting most professional photography?

Joe McNally: It would have been very tough to do, and most likely less of a book. When you jam writing in between shoots and travel, which I have done, the quality and thoughtfulness of the writing suffers. Joyce Carol Oates has famously said “The enemy of creativity is interruption.” It’s true. I came home on March 15, 2020, 75 days into the year. I had traveled 68 of those days. Annie [his wife] and I had made a deal. We knew it would be hard with me being on the road as much as 2020 was going to demand, and that it would be an extraordinary year, so we had figured out ways she could come on the road on jobs and we could be together.

I was in Romania, with the pandemic closing in, and we talked, and she said, wisely, you need to come home now. I flew home on the 15th, and didn’t get back on an airplane until July 17, 2021, when the actual Games were revving up. It was the longest stretch of time I had not been on an airplane in forty years.

The pandemic time frame, as devastating and bleak as it was in so many ways, allowed me to be home, which was wonderful, and write this book. I will say Rocky Nook is an extraordinary publisher, and extraordinarily patient. I signed the contract to write this some five years ago. And the pandemic allowed me the time to think and finally write it.

Photo by Joe McNally

PS: There’s been a lot of discussion about the cost benefit of a college education. You mention in the book how you barely graduated, and how important real world experience was in developing your skills. What are your thoughts for young people today in regards to going to college or pursuing a master’s degree while contemplating a professional career in photography?

JM: Great question. I know some of the young photographers who have assisted me honestly regret going to college. They’re saddled with debt, which is onerous, and they regard the degree as superfluous. I get it. But my view, one that is obviously curated by time and the long haul of a career, is that education is incredibly valuable and that time in college, as scattershot as my performance was, allowed me to thoroughly discover photography, and fall in love in with it in complete fashion. I studied the greats, and the history of the field. Professors Demarest and Golden were invaluable, critiquing, prodding, insisting and offering markers to observe along the way. Professor Demarest took me to England as his graduate assistant, and that opened the world to me. That time in school allowed me to develop rudimentary skills, and be able to show flashes of what potential I might have. It was enough, barely, that when I came to NY, some mentors took me seriously.

I remember getting a cheap flight to the West Coast, and I went to see Douglas Kirkland. Douglas, ever the gentleman, looked at my work and told me I was a fantastic photographer, which I knew was not true. Then I went to see Con Keyes, then the DOP at the LA Times. He told me flat out I’d never make it. Then I drove to San Francisco, and called Paul Fusco, whose work I greatly admired. He had a beautiful home across the bridge. I went there and he carefully made two piles of my prints. One he said was absolute shit. The other needed work, but showed promise, and I should follow the directions those images represented. It was thoughtful and incredibly valuable. I would never have known about Kirkland’s and Fusco’s work had I not gone to school, most likely.

By the way, that was back in the day when you could call these photographers up, right out of the blue, and they’d say sure come over. You wouldn’t be regarded as a deranged stalker.

PS: There’s a chapter in the book about technology (specifically flashes) and how advances have taken the guesswork out of the equation. Many photographers considered the Nikon D850 to be all they ever needed, so when a camera like the Z 9 comes out, does it really allow you to do something you couldn’t have previously? Or is it that it just makes it easier to do?

JM: Both, I think. The tech we have access to now as photographers is astounding. Talking about the Z 9 to photographers, I basically say every time we trigger the shutter button we should buy the engineers a beer. No doubt the D850 was and is an extraordinary camera. Historically, whenever I take a camera like that in hand I just figure, well, this is enough. All cool. All I need for the rest of time. But the nature of technology is to constantly evolve and improve, and we are here at the Z 9.

Photo by Joe McNally

There’s no question the Z 9 is a more evolved camera than the D850. The AF system is hugely improved, and it’s much faster, with the same resolution. More options. Continuous view of your subject, even when the power drive is flying. The nimbleness and smarts of the Z 9 will allow certain pictures to be achieved that would have been tougher prior to this tech.

It really comes down to an individual assessment of workflow, and objectives. For just about everything under the sun, the D850 will perform in stellar fashion. But if you are a sports shooter, for instance, the choice of a Z 9 is clear. It also involves an assessment of where we are going in this industry. Mirrorless, to me, appears to be the future. In the realm of Nikon, the evolution is carrying over to the lenses as well. The Z mount lenses are pretty incredible.

PS: Your last full-time staff job was with ABC, and after 18 months you quit and have been freelancing ever since. Freelancing ain’t easy, and I wonder whether you’ve ever contemplated going back to the security of the increasingly rare staff position.

JM: It has been mostly a freelance road for me. I didn’t dwell on this, or even mention it, I believe, but I did take another staff job, also short-lived, as a staff photographer at LIFE magazine. In the middle-ish nineties, I was a staff of one, making me the last staff photog in the history of LIFE. It’s a connection I felt very strongly, as so many of my heroes and mentors—Loengard, Carl Mydans, Ralph Morse, Gordon Parks—had created such history in association with the magazine. (On one amazing day, I assisted Gordon. Just wonderful to be in his presence.)

But you’re right, it’s been a freelance life, for the most part. And it’s hard, as you say. I’m unabashed about saying how things have gone well, and gone poorly. Like major indebtedness, so deep and wide I thought I’d never get back on top of it. Long stretches without work. Selling lenses to make the rent. No stranger to it. At one point, my beloved sisters insisted I go to a career counselor/advisor (they paid for the session) to explore what else I might be able to do. At the end of the appointment, I shrugged. It was a well-meaning gesture on their part, but fruitless. Photographer is what I am.

And as far as a staff job goes, those became increasingly rare. Plus, there is the simple fact that no one was gonna hire me.

Photo by Joe McNally

PS: I once asked Dave Black whether he felt the need to evolve his photographic style to suit the style du jour. He said no, his style is his style. Similarly, I’m struck at the visual coherence your work has through the decades. Do you feel the need to evolve your style to match a given aesthetic? Similarly, how do you balance the desire/urge to evolve as a visual creative?

To be honest, there are times when confronted with a job or a scene, that I wish I saw differently. Simpler. Cleaner. Less saturation and color pop. But, to quote Popeye, “I am what I am.” And that’s pretty true of most photogs, I think. We see in a certain way, and we visually vibrate with consistency when we encounter the world. We do know a picture when we see it, and thus go after it, and there tends to be a pattern to that approach. I think I’ve gotten better at this over time.

Every photog blows jobs, but the important thing is that you continue to pursue, continue to see, and you come back from mishaps and failure stronger and more informed. That in and of itself is an evolution as a creative. You handle pressure better, you are better at clearing the clutter out of the way you see. You understand better the power of “no,” in that you assess better on location what will and won’t work in uncompromising fashion and don’t waste time tilting at impossible visual windmills.

Photo by Joe McNally

PS: I want to push back a little on your essay about the portraits of businessman Phil Sokolof. You explain that he wanted to buy the image from your agency, and that you tried to charge “the living daylights out of it.” When your editors at Time tried to negotiate you down, you didn’t budge – thereby damaging your relationship with the magazine. While you acknowledge being “rude and unfair to my subject,” I would argue that one of the only financial upsides of being a freelancer is the ability to monetize in-demand photos. How would you handle the situation today?

JM: I’d just give him the photo and walk away. Or charge him a nominal, appropriate fee and be done with it. I did allude in that story to the fact that “the house always wins.” It’s true. I’ve found, as a freelancer, if you even so much ask the question, any question, really, you risk a bumpy run. You can labeled as “difficult.” Most editorial publications over time, especially some of the big, noteworthy ones, just want to throw a contract at you and expect you to go off into a corner and be screwed quietly. There’s another chapter in the book where I describe how the head of a company I was on line to do a job for torpedoed the job at sort of the last minute with a one line email from his smart phone. The fee was 30k, and I had almost started to count that money as a done deal. Bad idea. I just sent a note back and said I understood. He asked if the company owed me anything, and I had flown in on three separate scouting/meeting trips. I could have charged him for those trips, and my time. But he wouldn’t have understood about that and it would have made for a wrangle. (Increasingly, there is a sense in corporate entities out there where it’s a stretch for them to even imagine a photographer’s time is worth anything.)

But there’s also a beautiful thing that occurs when you find a client who does appreciate and honor the photographer. And they value the fact that it’s photographer’s imagination, sense of craft and imagination that creates the all important imagery of the client’s enterprise, represents their brand. That’s wonderful, and thankfully I’ve had, and still have, some truly wonderful clients. Those clients you throw your arms around and hold close.

So, my philosophy at this point, when confronted with a situation such as I describe in that chapter is to keep your head high and walk away. Another door will open. In the case of Phil and Time magazine, I acted badly. I was nasty, pompous and self important. Not to mention flat out dumb. That’s why I titled that chapter “When Hubris Meets Stupid.”

Photo by Joe McNally

PS: When you started out in the 1970s, the obvious path to becoming a full-time photographer was to get a staff job and take decent photos. Now, it seems that everyone from the newest entrants to the old-timers have realized the need to diversify – from books to workshops to print sales to YouTube channels. What’s your take?

JM: Another very perceptive question. I’ve told my assistants throughout the years that basically I had to learn how to do one thing well. Tell a good story. Be a good photographer. Neither of those things are easy. But now, to make a go of this enterprise you have to manage those two things for sure, but also diversify in both the sense of the craft, and the business. You have to know video and audio and be able to transit between the more traditional still training one might have growing up and expand your repertoire to include the video world, which is definitely a different medium. You have to have a sense of web design, and how to effectively market your self. You have to know how to write effectively for social media, and also for proposals and treatments to entice work to come your way.

The days of having reasonable expectations of coming out of photo-j school and getting a job as a staffer at a newspaper—“Here’s your schedule, here’s your gear, here’s your locker”— are long gone. Not all that many photogs run their own studios and maintain staffs anymore, so a staff assistant position is not a ready thing to find either. Photographers now, in the marketplace, have to be very proactive. Pursue skills relentlessly. Look for marketing options. Can’t sit by the phone, waiting for the call. A big part of what the photog must do now is make that phone ring. It’s a lot to tackle.

PS: You wrote a chapter about failure and referenced your 1988 assignment with SI to photograph the biggest NFL players. In your telling, your concepts failed, you cost the magazine $25k, damaged your relationship with the editors, and none of the photos ran. How have you avoided such catastrophe since then?

JM: I’d like to say it’s all smooth sailing since then, but it hasn’t been. Sometimes you might think the job has gone well, and the client is lukewarm. Or the client is enthusiastic about something you don’t perceive to be your best work. Or you choose poorly, and try to jam a job in when the schedule isn’t reasonable. I did that once with Geo. I tried to sandwich a job for them in between two huge Nat Geo jobs I had running. Gave it the back of my hand. Not smart.

I mean, generally, when you shoot jobs, the results need to be well received or you are out of business. But whenever you risk reaching, which is what photographers need to do, you risk failure. It’s part of the job. Hopefully, the bumps or failures are not utterly dire, but when you push the needle, you’ve got to hold on tight. I was lucky enough to be one of four photogs to introduce the D850 worldwide. I wrote a series of simple treatments for the team at Nikon Singapore, and they liaised with a German ad/production agency. Who in turn hired a Canadian film crew. We all converged on Budapest to stage a photo we referred to as The Heist. I had to light this whole, cavernous museum to pull it off. Cranes in the streets with Pro-10 units, blasting through windows, lighting huge vaulted ceilings. Crew numbered between 30-40. It’s your idea, so you are the eye of the storm, designing the look of the shot, choosing the wardrobe and the model, creating the lighting, the staging, the gesture. It’s a lot, and it’s a risk in terms of pulling it off. Confidence plays a huge role. Thankfully it was a success.

So, then you breathe. And you take that confidence and approach the next project. The best pictures live out there on that narrow borderline between success and failure. So there’s not ever a get out jail free card, an insurance policy that guarantees your pictures will always be well received and a job will be deemed successful.

PS: There were so many anecdotes about failure or some contemplation about what a photo could have been if all the stars had aligned. At the same time, the book is filled with incredible photography that anyone would be proud to have in their portfolio. In that sense, it feels like you’re very comfortable with the photographer you are, and the arc of your life. Fair read?

JM: Definitely a fair read. I got into this business because I love making photographs, for sure. But a big part of the drive was to try to create a solid body of work, worthy of notice, and conduct myself responsibly, and gain the respect of my peers. The frontispiece has two sentences. “I imagined a life. And then I took pictures of it.” Fair enough.

Joe McNally’s “The Real Deal” will be published in February 2022.

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