Joe McNally is a globally renowned, award-winning American photographer, and visual storyteller. Some of his bestselling books include: Faces of Ground Zero (2002), The Moment it Clicks (2008), The Hot Shoe Diaries (2009), and Sketching Light (2011).
Joe is known for his passion for the medium of photography, as evidenced by his varied creative output, culled from all corners of the globe and all walks of life, as well as his fervour for cameras of all shapes and sizes, both old and new. He still likes to hear the sound of a shutter.
He is also not afraid of heights, it seems.
As a working photographer, Joe has played many roles and worn many hats over the years, with career highlights that continue to this day, such as being the ambassador for Nikon, not to mention that he was the former TIME /LIFE Magazine staff photographer, and a winner of four World Press Photo awards. The list goes on.
Joe is always involved with something creative and extraordinary. This video on “Transformation” is just one example of the many curious projects that he has been involved with over the years, with himself right in the thick of it.
Now, as then, Joe keeps tenaciously at his work, and is able to create remarkable singular portraits, by establishing a relationship with the subject in front of his camera to create a unique dynamic.
His work may be compared to that of a master movie director, who is able to, by their sheer enthusiasm for the task at hand, bring forth a certain energy from those they work with, with unmistakable results.
(photos from: https://portfolio.joemcnally.com/index)
Joe McNally was born on July 27, 1952, in Montclair, New Jersey.
He grew up gazing upon “Nikon World”, a magazine published by Nikon, thinking that printed pictures in such a magazine would be among the highest achievements for a photographer.
Little did he know at the time that he would become so closely associated with the word “Nikon”…
During his younger days, his inspiration came from well known and award-winning photographers like Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, and Eric Meola.
The first time Joe got his hands on a real camera, which belonged to his dad, the device resonated with him, and the snapping of photos soon began at a leisurely yet ever-increasing pace.
Speaking of Joe’s dad, Joe has talked about him on his personal blog, and it is clear that his dad’s influence – that of hard work and blue collar life, a connection with nature, and even his dad’s experience from being in the Navy – all this helped to form Joe’s identity as both a person and as a photographer
Many of his works definitely and rather directly pay an homage to his father in some form or another, even if it isn’t readily apparent in every single shot he does.
After attending Syracuse University with sights set on photojournalism, the first inklings that photography could be his career began to make themselves known to him.
After graduating, with camera in hand, opportunities for adventure began to call, and Joe was soon swept up in it.
One time he bought a train ticket heading east. He was walking through the docks and talking to the locals when suddenly got an invitation to join sailors for 14 days trip to the sea. This isn’t something that a lot of people would be apt to say “yes” to, but Joe relished the chance.
While riding the currents, there was, at one point, a huge storm at sea, and the ship and crew found itself pitching through 50 feet waves! So, naturally, Joe started to take pictures. This experience was so breathtaking, that after the ordeal, he decided that perhaps photography was his calling after all.
Perhaps because of this nautical episode, in addition to his trips to Bliss Musky Lodge, bodies of water and peoples’ interaction with them have become a recurring theme in Joe’s work, used in a multitude of ways.
Not too long after leaving Syracuse U, with a masters degree in photojournalism from the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Joe got a job with The New York Daily News newspaper as a copy boy.
This job was apparently was fated to be brief stint, because he was fired, and from there, Joe then moved to ABC Television and worked there as a photographer.
As the medium of colour photography continued to evolve, McNally saw more possibilities open up for him. It was surely an exciting time, as he started to work as a freelancer for various magazines like TIME / LIFE, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic.
National Geographic proved to be very educational for him by showing him a new standard for what was required of a professional photographer.
Joe’s photography skilled, combined with his passion and deftness with a camera lens, became to lead Joe into a full time career, where he then began to travel the world and meet many famous people.
One defining moment of his career was when Joe took a black and white portrait of former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, which was taken in the woods in some snowy Soviet woodland region.
The former Soviet leader looks ever-so-nationalistic when set against such a starkly beautiful backdrop of crisp white snow and characteristically Russian trees.
With a growing base of experience, and his travels taking him around the world and meeting people of all walks of life, Joe McNally’s name began to really become well-known.
As such, he can basically photograph anything and tell a story with it. His ability to relate to all people, places, and things of the world make him a jack of all trades, so to speak, but still with a style that is identifiable.
From Burj Khalifa to Ground Zero
Throughout his career, Joe McNally has been to some stunning locations, some of which were not easy to reach, but gave spectacular views.
For example, he climbed to the top of the world’s highest building, Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Here, he left a love note to his wife, and took the picture from the top, looking down.
The funny thing about this particular shoot is, surprisingly, he didn‘t get paid at all. The only thing he got, monetarily, was some shoes from the same shoe brand he was wearing in the picture.
Of course, that particularly picture went viral and that led, not surprisingly, to new offers, to climb other skyscrapers, which of course from then on Joe accepted payment for.
This tower climbing story is a perfect example of Joe’s maverick spirit where he followed a seemingly crazy idea, took a risk, and it led to something great.
In January 2002, Joe finished one of the most important projects, not only in his career, but in the whole history of American photography – he captured images of people who saved others’ lives during the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
In these human-size portraits, there are firefighters, victims’ relatives, medical coworkers, who represent the real heroism of one of the most difficult moments in America’s history.
Here is Joe talking about this exhibition.
Joe opened up about the emotional struggle he dealt with in creating this project – sometimes people in front of the camera started to cry, remembering terrifying events of that day, and, during these hard moments, it was hard not to be too emotional.
With this project, Joe showed that despite difficult emotional moments, the final aim was achieved – these pictures became a book, and helped raised two million dollars which was then donated to public education.
Communication and Reminders
McNally has revealed that photography helped him greatly in his private life, to communicate with his family such as his daughters and ex-wife, while also providing reminders of situations that may not seem altogether positive, but ultimately show a sense of triumph.
He applied his photography skills when his daughter had self-confidence issues, or, the time that she accidentally hurt her face near a pool. Rather than talk to his wife about it, he sent her this picture.
In these situations, he couldn‘t find the right words to communicate how he felt, but the pictures spoke for themselves, showing support and encouragement, but also sometimes causing some controversy.
Also, Joe used photography as a reminder of the feeling he had, when he was visiting his mother for the last time at the hospital before she died.
Pictures like these can be bittersweet, but also provide important reminders about times that often can go undocumented, fading into memory and obscurity. In some way, photos are a way to never forget, because we don’t want to forget. In some way, documents like this are a way for us to learn.
Tips for Beginner Photographers
According to Joe, there isn’t a better time to be a photographer than right now.
There is plenty of good photo equipment, and, from there, the question becomes how to find a way to monetize various photography projects and get funding.
In a sense, it may have been easier in the past, because printed publications were more plentiful when McNally started his career.
He always used to tell young photographers: get yourself a job in a newspaper, but, now, the world had changed, and newspapers are disappearing and online publications are on the rise.
Therefore, it is important to be active and tenacious when it comes to succeeding with your own destiny: start to create proposals, find contacts, and make sure to send your proposals out – from newspapers and magazines to corporate entities, places who might have a need of photography.
A good start for a career in a very fast-changing world can start even from local Starbucks or the library. Really, it can start from anywhere.
Joe McNally, as some other famous photographers, has a personal blog which he updates constantly, where, for example, shares his favourite camera lenses: 20 mm f/2.8 and 28 mm f/1.4.
Visit his blog here: https://blog.joemcnally.com/
Joe recommends starting a blog because it gives a voice and platform to spread works and ideas. Even if at first 10 people will read it, maybe 20 more will be the next month. The snowball effect is real.
Joe McNally Quotes
“When shooting a story about someone, their hands should always be on your list to shoot.”
“The most important piece of equipment in your bag is your attitude.”
“When I teach young photographers, I say: look, photography is not what you do, being a photographer is something you are. And if you are a photographer, you’re screwed, because you have no choice, you only need to go forward.”
“I wanted to meet Gorbachev because that’s what you can do as a photographer: take your imagination and make it real by photographing what you see.”
“When you find something which is truly beautiful, you can’t not shoot”.
“A lot of people think that is all about the pictures; it’s not. You have to have a personality that sustains you. You have to have the drive, work ethic, to relate to the client, to people in front of the camera and make that happen quickly.”
“Even after 35 years of practice, it good pictures don’t come automatically. Maybe you have problems at home, and you need to work, so you do it. It’s not always like wandering through perfect lighted streets, sometimes it is, but most of the time is just hard work.”
Faces of Ground Zero:
Joe McNally on Instagram:
Joe McNally on Facebook:
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