The Dead Pixels Society podcast

The life of a working photographer, with Joe McNally

February 24, 2022 Gary Pageau/Joe McNally Season 3 Episode 67
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
The life of a working photographer, with Joe McNally
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with professional photographer Joe McNally, whose 40-plus year career spans National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, four Olympic Games, Nikon Ambassador, and much more. McNally talks about how his career started in 1976 as a Daily News copyboy, armed with a master's degree in photojournalism from Syracuse,  and working his way up to success. McNally also discusses how photographers have to continually grow their skills, especially in video and filmmaking, and how the Nikon Z9 changed his mind about the mirrorless platform. 

McNally also shares details of his new book, "The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer (Rocky Nook), which candidly shares stories, lessons, and insights he has collected along the way of his career. 

Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning photographer whose prolific career includes assignments in nearly 70 countries. McNally is known worldwide as not only one of the top, technically excellent photographers of his generation, but his charming demeanor, confidence, and humor make him a sought-after choice from CEOs to celebrities to commercial and magazine clients alike. 

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Erin Manning  
Welcome to the Dead Pixels Society podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. Here's your host, Gary Pageau.

Gary Pageau  
The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Photo Finale, and Advertek Printing. Hello again and welcome to the Dead Pixel Society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by a world renowned photographer Joe McNally, who's coming to us from Connecticut. Hi, Joe. How are you today?

Joe McNally  
Hey, Gary, how's it going? Doing well?

Gary Pageau  
Listen, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy shooting schedule. To talk you were actually doing he did the Olympics this year? Correct?

Joe McNally  
I did Tokyo was was a wonderful Olympics in many ways. Also strange. And and difficult. But I was glad I went.

Gary Pageau  
Yeah. Yeah, that was one of the things I've I've heard in some of the recent interviews you've done, it was one of the most challenging Olympics you've ever had to shoot. How many Olympics? Have you shot?

Joe McNally  
A total of four kind of spaced out over time? Okay.

Gary Pageau  
Okay. And how does one get the gig of being an Olympic photographer?

Joe McNally  
Well, it's not, it doesn't come too easy. Now. You know, in the days when magazines really ruled ruled the earth, I had a contract with Sports Illustrated back in the 80s. And I went to the 1984 Olympics, actually, for ABC Television was my client. In 2000, I went to the Sydney Olympics for Time Magazine. And then the Rio Olympics for Sports Illustrated. And then this last Olympics, I was working with Zuma press, as a worldwide distribution agency. So you have to kind of mix and match you it is good to have covered several because then you're in the Olympic system, right? And you can be grandfathered in for credentials occasionally. But that's usually you know, the process would be to have a magazine or an entity, a publishing entity back you for the credential.

Gary Pageau  
So let's talk a little bit about your beginnings in the industry. Because you are you sell yourself described, as you said before the interviewer, kitchen sink photographer, you've done a little bit of everything. A lot of people know your work from sports, but you've done travel, commercial, all kinds of things, what got you into the business to start,

Joe McNally  
I picked up a camera in school, I was a writing major in school, and I was required to take a photography course I could not avoid it. Not that I would have tried. You know, photography at that point was like, okay, cool. I have to take this class, I'll give it a try. Sounds like fun. And I picked up a camera and it immediately felt natural in my hands. And it was a black hole for me. It just sucked me in. I was like, This is what I need to do. And that

Gary Pageau  
was back when you had to do the whole process yourself. Right? I mean, you're probably spooling your own film. You're probably developing your own film in a dark room you're doing having, you know, to make prints for critiques and all of that correct.

Joe McNally  
Yeah, we, I grew up in a black and white darkroom. And the first camera I used for that class was my dad's was an old rangefinder called a beauty light three.

Gary Pageau  
Never heard of that one.

Joe McNally  
No, it's pretty obscure. Dad used to take the, you know, the family vacation pictures with it. So I borrowed that and, you know, was off to the races, learning, failing, learning failing, you know, as you do. And I, I grew determined over time that yes, this would be the area of journalism, I was always interested in journalism. I was, as I say, I was in a writing curriculum. And I wrote for my high school paper, etc. So I've always been interested in telling stories. Sure, to me, the camera was a real gift. And a notion that I could tell stories visually. pretty wonderful.

Gary Pageau  
Did you go straight into a journalism path? Kind of the traditional, maybe a daily newspaper, a weekly newspaper at a college or did you you know, try and build up your portfolio doing something else? What was your Did you get any guidance? I guess in terms of career coming out at that point,

Joe McNally  
my professor at Syracuse, Fred Demarest was a major influence in my life and incredibly good teacher, and a decent man. He had always had good advice for photography and for the world. And so I was determined to go to New York City, I started at newspapers, but very ingloriously, so I was not a newspaper photographer right away. I started in took a job at the New York Daily News, which was New York's picture newspaper in the day, as a copy boy and a copy boy, back in the day of thought led printer paper and cynical paper that had to be moved. You that's what you did. You ran from desk to desk on deadline you you move deadline copy from one slot to the other. You went and got coffee for editors. You went and picked up bags of film from photographers. You were a glorified errand kit, basically, which

Gary Pageau  
I guess as a college graduate, you were like, wow, this is not really what I expected. Was

Joe McNally  
it on the work is a very good and also unforgiving teacher. Yes, I hit, I hit New York City. I had a master's degree in photojournalism from Syracuse. And I thought, well, you know, the world is just a way. Yeah, the city's waiting for me, man. And that was a foolish and hubristic? And, well, it's just plain dumb, I guess you could, that would be the one word you would put and but the thing is, I'm glad for that. I'm glad it was hard. I'm glad I had the experiences I did in the early going at the paper, because it got me into the mix. And it taught me a lot about durability hanging in there hearing no a lot, and not necessarily being welcomed, you know, Kevin to kind of push the door open instead of having it open for you.

Gary Pageau  
You've recently published a book and that's what I really want to talk about is it's called the real deal field notes from a life of a working photographer. And I like to phrase working photographer, because if you look at the breadth of your work, it's really a lot of different types of work, a lot of things you've had to learn along the way. And that's really part of I think working is always learning

Joe McNally  
through the choice of the word working was a very considered decision on the part of my editor and myself. Because we thought field notes from life of a professional photographer, know the term professional photographer has become, I don't know, let's call it elastic. Let's a lot of folks out there calling themselves professionals. Right. So the the hallmark of my career, if you wanted to throw a descriptor on it, is that yes, I've worked I've worked for 40 years with nothing between me and the poorhouse except a camera in my hand, right? Oh, and I've had my bumps to be sure. But as I say it's a learning process.

Gary Pageau  
Yeah, I mean, you've had to adapt. Obviously, there was the viewer shooting, you know, black and white collar, I'm sure you shot a lot of Kodachrome. And then you had to make the transition to digital and work both because sometimes digital was was better in this nice film was better. And you have to use a bunch of changes in technology, you know, to be a working photographer, I think you really have to try and master all levels of the craft where I think like you said, there is an element in the professional photographer ranks where it's really more about giving workshops and things like that.

Joe McNally  
Oh, yeah, be mentoring is a powerful thing. And I love the idea that the the photo community is very much a community right. And there's a lot of mentoring going on a lot of teaching going on. Some of it is better than others or different, whatever you might call it, but there is kind of a pass it on ethic to this industry, which I've always appreciated. I was mentored, you know, sometimes fiercely by wire service editors and and the old timey newspaper, you know, photographers who would pull you aside Listen, kid, I tell you what, to do that kind of a thing, you know? Yeah. But it is I'm still learning. I'm still trying to find my next good photograph. I'm still trying to get to another level

Gary Pageau  
after moved out of the the New York picture newspaper, as you say, what was your next step? Did you ever did you shoot much for them, and then move into wire services or just totally freelance?

Joe McNally  
It's a turbulent, you know, sort of, you know, it's not a straight line. Let's put it that way. So yeah, we had a we had a major strike at the Daily News on 88 days, and the guild members, we ended up forming small newspapers to substitute because there's a big hole in the culture of New York when the daily news went dark, right. And at the time in the 70s, if you didn't get on the subway with a newspaper, it'd be almost like you forgot your pants. You know, it was just part of the culture, you know. So these little city, the city news was the one I worked for. And Danny Farrell took me on who was the Dean of New York City press photography at the time, and I learned a lot from Danny. So all of a sudden, I was thrown out on the street for this little newspaper. And I started shooting politics and ballgames and you name it. And then of course, the strike ended I went back to the news and given the economic trouble they fired me. So I went back out on the street and started to work for wire services, the New York Times etc. And then my first job offer as a full time staff photographer was for ABC Television. Okay, they needed an a network still photographer and somehow I got that job. So what

Gary Pageau  
does that entitle the network's still photographers like taking pictures of their performances for press kits and things like that? Or is it headshots or what What kind of thing? What kind of photography is that

Joe McNally  
all of the above? You know, I could have a week where I shoot ABC Monday Night Football, and then go to Washington and photograph Ted Koppel on the set of Nightline, then come back to ABC in New York and shoot a still life of an Emmy, and then go to all my children and do beauty portraits of Susan

Gary Pageau  
Lucci, but it was a tough gig is what you're saying?

Joe McNally  
It was hard. It was hard. Absolutely. Because on every job, Gary, I had to shoot color and black and white, horizontal, vertical, right? Because he didn't know where the pictures would be used. Right? So it made you very nimble. And it also introduced me to Kodachrome and lighting. Because all of a sudden, I went from a black and white street photographer to having to light a set and shoot Kodachrome, and I never assisted anybody. It was trial and error, emphasis on the error.

Gary Pageau  
Did you have like the imposter syndrome a little bit coming into that situation? When you were like, wow, I'm such a light, this soap opera actress and do a great job. And I don't have a lot of experience doing it

Joe McNally  
like Yeah, I mean, there was another staff photographer there who had vastly more technical experience than I did, I was thoroughly intimidated by the whole atmosphere of it. But, you know, you hang in there, and you learn, hopefully, gracefully, you know, and thankfully, that was a job that's still photographer for a network television operation is the caboose of the operation, you are not given much thought or time because they're there to make TV, not stills. Right. So

Gary Pageau  
that clan is here to learn to work fast and efficiently.

Joe McNally  
Absolutely. And as I have said, Before, my it was a job that sort of expected failure. And I routinely delivered on that expectation. But I did learn, you know, you'd have you had to, you had to get quick and good, you know, the the director let you in front of the cameras for two or three minutes with the talent, right? And I'm shooting color and black or white, horizontal, vertical and two or three minutes, right.

Gary Pageau  
And you got to make a subject comfortable in that short amount of time and get stablished some sort of report or something. And it's while that's something but does that go back to the street photography aspect, because in that you do have to establish a quick report with a subject to though.

Joe McNally  
Sure, I mean, growing up and bouncing off of newspapers, and wire services photographically is probably one of the best educations you could possibly have, because you do three or four assignments in a day, and they'd all be different. And as you say, you had to move quick, strike a report, make something happen, and then move on. And it's the same thing, only somewhat more technically complex, because I threw the component of color into the mix when I was shooting for ABC. And you learn lessons, you know, I flew down to Pennsylvania with Barbara Walters to photograph Mamie Eisenhower. And that was before, you know, maybe passed away shortly after this interview. But they let me this, you know, the classic two, three minutes, okay, sales, and I slitters. Almost like a runner sliding into second base. I came under the cameras and I was on my knees and I had my camera. And Mamie Eisenhower just had a wag the finger at me. And she said no young man, you never shoot a lady from below her chin line. That's a lesson. That's a lesson I learned very quickly. And I said, Yes, Mrs. Eisenhower, I understand. And I made a more decent presentation and myself and shot and shot the pictures.

Gary Pageau  
Wow. You mentioned mentoring, and I'm sure there's probably photographers that you've mentored over the years. Now, they don't have the advantages today of wire service copy boy environment, because that's kind of gone away. What advice would you give to photographers who want to follow your path of getting that well rounded experience?

Joe McNally  
It's a good and tough question, Gary. Yes, newspapers, magazines have faded in the repertory of photographers. So I think what's been thrown back on the photographers shoulders is to kind of make their own way. One thing I do counsel young photographers always is to learn how to write well, because we're in a day and age where the phone doesn't ring off the hook with assignments as it did many years ago. Right. So you have to write proposals. You have to write coherence, rejoinder rejoinders to emails and requests for work, you have to when a job does come in, you have to be able to respond to that intelligently and conform the situation to a mutual place where you're going to get the job and you're going to feel good about getting the job, right, all of that. So that's a real component of what you need to know. Now. You also have to be buried in your skills you have to know how to do video. Even on a rudimentary level level and audio you have to know the web You have to stay on top of news reports and, and the world in general to see what trends are happening. Sure. And then also, there's the time honored tradition of trying to find an established photographer and working for them as an assistant,

Gary Pageau  
which is harder and harder these days, because there's fewer and fewer photographers, you actually a physical studios, really, so many of them rent almost all of their equipment, they don't have a physical space really anymore.

Joe McNally  
True that that has happened for sure the big rental houses have their own staffs, but individually photographers, not as much as as they once did. Now, you

Gary Pageau  
mentioned a couple of things that I think are really important. One is audio, and one is video. Because I hear keeping this phrase, when I talk to my friends who are camera retailers, or suppliers, they're really talking about reaching content creators, of which photography is a part of that, but also the video side the vlogging side now audio because, you know, you have to be able to capture audio, if you transition into that. And how difficult was that?

Joe McNally  
It is it's it's a different medium, you know, when we were pretty naive, I think when DSLR started incorporating video into their array of technology, because you know, yet clients would assign you to do the stills and they say, oh, yeah, shoot a little video too, as if it was no big deal, right? You know, it is a big deal. It's a different medium requires different skills requires good audio editing afterwards, etc. And so you have to, I think, be a little bit of a three ring circus Master, you know, within the context of your own studio or your own workspace, to be able to do a variety of different things, and bring to clients that which they need. And it has become a component here I've directed several short films in the last three, four or five years. And it's a skill that is, you know, it's different. It you're, you're an art director at that point, but you're an art director of the moving image, right. And you have to know how to relate to a camera person who's running the video, I don't really shoot the video myself, right. That is we hire people who are more experienced on that level. But the again, the bottom line is the same in the the defining similarity. For any photographer, whether you're shooting video or stills is tell a good story, know where the story is going to go.

Gary Pageau  
But you still have to have some basic rudimentary techniques and skills to be able to convey a story. Clearly,

Joe McNally  
when I shot for the geographic I shot for geographic for maybe over the span of 25 years. And to move the reader was your job to get the reader involved in the magazine in the story at hand, right. And so if I got a picture in the National Geographic would have to succeed on at least three levels, it would have to be pictorially successful, it would have to be informationally successful. In other words, move the chains a little bit during the trip, provide information. And then I would have to be emotionally successful. That would be the best of the worlds you know, that really involved the reader, make the reader laugh or cry or get angry or get interested or think or feel. That was that was the mission of the day still is

Gary Pageau  
geographic is probably the premier brand, if you will probably along with sports illustrated in terms of illustrated storytelling. How did you get involved with National Geographic in the day and you had a relationship with them, like you said, more than 20 years,

Joe McNally  
but I got to know Tom Kennedy, who is the DOP down into a graphic and a bit of a convoluted story. So I won't go into it. But we were lectured together on a on a traveling what they call the NPPA flying short course, right? And it was actually a wonderful way of actually showing Tom my portfolio. And at the end of that week, he just looked at me and said you should come down and start shooting for us. So I never actually went to geographic and petitioned for work or showed a portfolio Tom just said, come on down. We'll put you to work.

Gary Pageau  
That's great. We talked a little bit about technology earlier and you recently been using some of the latest technology, the Nikon Z nine platform, which you know, you are a Nikon ambassador and tell us a little bit about why you're going to be focusing more of your shooting with a xenon because you weren't always warm to the mirrorless platform.

Joe McNally  
But I was nervous about mirrorless you know, the dawn of mirrorless. And I'll say I've enjoyed shooting the the Nikon six and seven style cameras, lots of technology and a small form factor. Right. But the thing is, I've always been a devoted fan of the flagship camera. So at Tokyo, I shot all the six DSLR Yeah, and it's a robust camera gives you something to really hang on to and now the Z nine comes along. It's a flagship mirrorless and has the feel and density. Not necessarily wait, it's smaller than a D six, or even a D 850. But it does give you something to hang on to. And it is utterly and completely packed with cutting edge mirrorless technology. So what's not to like at that point?

Gary Pageau  
What is it specifically about it? Is it because it's similar enough to to the flagship DSLR. But it still has the advantages of the mirrorless, what's really the distinguishing item

Joe McNally  
Yeah, and as a flagship build, and it has superior technology, the autofocus is astonishing. The speed of the camera is off the charts, the you know, other things that are going on with it, the fact that it has no shutter, and it has it's really about, it's the first camera in the marketplace that I know about that has no shutter. So it moves so fast, and the quality of file is beautiful. And it's completely responsive. So I've got all of this stuff going for me in the mirrorless world. But I have the robust build of what has always been associated with DSLR. And I think it's a it's a good marriage, really good marriage for the photographer.

Gary Pageau  
Tell us a little bit more about the book. Why did you choose to write a book? I mean, in the foreword, you said it, it's took a couple years, I think to come together to write it.

Joe McNally  
It I mean, Writing is hard work requires, you know, time at home, and in front of a computer to think and plan and write. Yeah, and the that time was in short supply for a long time. Until of course pandemic hit right. And then I was home. I thought well, no more excuses. Big guy, you know, you know, I had signed the contract with Rocky Nick, my publisher to do a book some five years ago, right. And they are very patient people. So finally, I was home. So a very small, personal silver lining to the horrible aspects of the pandemic was for me, I was home. And I was able to write this book, you have

Gary Pageau  
a book contract with a publisher, and it's probably pretty wide open, right? You could write whatever you'd like, right? I mean, but you chose to really make it more of a not a tutorial, per se, but really providing solid advice, as opposed to, here are some great tips on getting great photos.

Joe McNally  
Yeah, I mean, that to be honest, my editor and I were halfway through the book, I was about halfway done with it. And we still weren't sure what it was, you know, and the it's not a superhighway to an a piece of information. It's not a book on posing, it's not a book on, you know how to use Photoshop or anything at all like that. So it's not directed like that. I liken it to something along the lines of a country road, not a superhighway, it's a country wrote, it's a meander through the life of a working photographer. And there's a lot of information and lessons and there's some tech information in there as well. But it's presented anecdotally,

Gary Pageau  
right, you know, you've been in the industry for like 40 years, per se. Why is this the right time, besides the pandemic to release that book? Do you? Do you think there's a need for that level of mentorship to younger photographers today?

Joe McNally  
Yeah, I mean, that's the neighborhood I live in, you know, the the technique, the craft, the pixels, the lenses, the cameras, all amazing. All needs to be learned. You have to be familiar and build your craft, to be sure. But the real essence of this is to work hard, and be engaged, you know, be curious about the world because you are a visual reporter. And so you have to be really motivated and passionate about what people are doing. I'm hugely I'm a people photographer, if you want to put another label on kind of the general run of my career. And I'm intensely curious about people, you know, who are they? What do they do? What's their life like all of that? So I think the whole push of, of this book and its presence, you know, out there in the field, is to not to counterweight, the glut, if you will, of technical stuff that's out there, but maybe just a gentle reminder of why we're all doing this.

Gary Pageau  
Well, great. And where can people find information on the book? And you?

Joe McNally  
Sure, my website is JoeMcNally.com, pretty straightforward. And we have a blog, you know, so JoeMcNally.com/blog, which we write regularly, and I'm over on Instagram at Joe McNally photo.

Gary Pageau  
Great. Well, thank you, Joe, for your time and your sharing of your story. Appreciate it. Hope people check out the book. I think it's due out early 2022 I think is when it's actually going to be published. Is that correct?

Joe McNally  
It is it's hopefully making its way off a freighter in the Pacific even as we speak.

Gary Pageau  
Well, thank you, Joe. Have a great 2022 and hope to see you hopefully in person at an industry event sometime.

Joe McNally  
I hope so too. Thanks very much, Gary. It's a honor to be invited. Thank you.

Erin Manning  
Thank you for listening to the Dead Pixels Society podcast. Read more great stories and sign up for the newsletter at www.thedeadpixelssociety.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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