Joe McNally — the name alone brings up so many thoughts of photography-related topics that could be written about. So, where does one begin when having a coffee with this world-famous photographer and storyteller? This is the thought that kept running through my mind on my 90-minute drive to have coffee with McNally and to talk about his work and life in the photography industry.
A few weeks ago, I had the fabulous opportunity to spend some time with McNally at a coffee shop near his home in Connecticut. McNally has a long career in photography and storytelling, so trying to decide what to focus on for our conversation was no easy feat. I say photography and storytelling because, to me, the one aspect of McNally’s work that sets it above so many other photographers is the storytelling that occurs in his work. Of course, his work is flawless when it comes to the technical aspects such as lighting, exposure, and composition, but what really draws me in is his ability to capture the human element.
One of my first questions for McNally was how he would describe the type of photographer he was to someone that might not know his work. As McNally noted he grew up as a general assignment news photographer, so he wasn’t limited in his subjects. McNally explained:
There’s not been for better or worse a driving aesthetic or interest behind my work in terms of a particular people or place or social or political cause. I’ve just like kind of [been] 'what do you need done?' Ok, cool. I like time behind the camera, I enjoy shooting pictures. It could be a portrait, a corporate job where I’m in a chemical factory, it could be a science job, it could be sports. As long as it is human.
And there you have what I believe McNally is, a photographer of humans. McNally went on to say: “I come alive as a photographer when I've got a person. I’m curious about them — you know, what do they do, who are they, how do they work, how do they make a living?”
Curiosity, what a pleasant aspect to have as a photographer. McNally’s curiosity is evident by the subjects he shoots, be it a Russian Ballet ballerina on a rooftop or a welder working high up in a skyscraper. Each of these photographs grabs the viewer's attention and stokes the curiosity in the viewer. Then, as the viewer examines the photograph, McNally’s storytelling comes into play to answer that curiosity. For example, the ballerina isn’t just thrown up onto any roof. No, this particular roof is essential, as it also captures the Kremlin, and McNally in one shot tells us this is a ballerina from the Russian Ballet.
But as McNally mentioned, he is also curious about his human subjects. I believe this is what makes McNally’s images so strong and exciting. His curiosity in his human subjects makes themfeel at ease while they are being photographed, which in turns lets them be themselves. And right then is when McNally captures the magic.
McNally was able to hone his skill of capturing the human subject in his early days shooting for Sports Illustrated, Life Magazine, and National Geographic to name just a few. With so many publications like these do not exist today or are reducing their photography staff, I ask McNally where photographers get feedback when they don’t have editors today. McNally told me that younger photographers today do have it harder in getting good feedback and education that came from photo editors, but that there are still ways to obtain this knowledge. The use of paid reviews at conventions or at workshops is a way to receive feedback, but they need to be performed by knowledgeable reviewers. McNally also thinks that young photographers can learn on their own by going back and seeking out the great photographers that came before us. McNally is quick to say that many young photographers are forging their own paths with new technology, so they don’t need to build off of the earlier photographers, because these photographers are creating a whole new area of art.
However, McNally himself is never done learning, and again it is his curiosity that keeps driving him to new projects. McNally shared a story with me about how a curiosity about coal mining resulted in a self-project. He explained to me that the initial objective involved shooting portraits of coal miners in Kentucky as they entered and left work one day, but the project culminated on the second unplanned day when the miners asked if McNally would be interested in descending 7,500 feet into the mine with them. This second day was not planned or requested by McNally. McNally’s genuine curiosity and sincere interest in the human subject in front of his camera not only comes across in his photographs but also to the human subjects he photographs. If it didn’t, those Kentucky miners would never have invited McNally into their private work home, the mine.
McNally admits his ability to connect with the human subject has not always been as refined as it is today. But years of photographing humans have taught McNally that to produce an intriguing photograph and even more importantly, to tell a story, the photographer must develop a bond with the human subject. Creating a meaningful image is an exercise in human relations. As McNally said: “That ability to make a connection with people whether it is based on commonality of spirit, interest, or sincere approach or humor, something that makes a bit of a bond is far more important than anything you can bring to the table.”
Curiosity and sincere interest, those are the fundamental ingredients to McNally’s excellent body of work of images and the storytelling captured in his pictures. As I sat there drinking my coffee and listening to McNally answer my questions, no that isn’t correct, rather talking to me, I saw his natural human relations ability shine. His spirit and humor made me feel comfortable, even though I was talking with a world-class photographer whose work I have admired for decades. Comments by McNally like “aging with a camera in your hand is like becoming a cured ham” can make one feel at ease.
In the second part of this two-part series with McNally, I will focus on our conversation concerning technology and how much or how little it matters to the final image.
All images provided by and used with permission of Joe McNally Photography.