Joe McNally Spills the Beans Over Coffee on What it Takes to Make Great Images: Part 1

Joe McNally Spills the Beans Over Coffee on What it Takes to Make Great Images: Part 1

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.

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16 Comments

user-156929's picture

Your experience is just how I imagined an encounter with Joe would be. :-)

Michael Comeau's picture

Ummm, can you just post the interview itself?

Douglas Turney's picture

At Fstopers we do not post question and answer type of interviews. There are many question and answer type of interviews (written and video) with Joe on the internet if you are interested in those. We aim to provide articles that are based on interviewing, or more accurately for this article, base on a conversation with Joe.

Michael Comeau's picture

Maybe you should reconsider that policy - a secondhand description of a conversation is just hard to follow, especially when there are so few direct quotes from the man himself.

Douglas Turney's picture

Ahhh but come on Michael, I did quote him about becoming a cured ham.

I understand your point about question and answer type of interviews, but I've also seen other sites where this type becomes all too common.

Tim Gallo's picture

Common is good. Your style is common for tabloids, so that after interview they can still push their agenda.
But interviews are great - cause now you can concentrate on actual content of the conversation. Question and answers - give you straightforward approach to somebody-s voice/words. And thats what has real power. Words of someone who actually lived through what he is talking about.
Hear-say will always be weak.

Douglas Turney's picture

If you believe all question and answer type of interview articles are not edited and that you are getting everything that was said, well you are mistaken. Very mistaken.

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the article and your expectations were for a question and answer type of interview were not met. I honestly try to develop content that is appealing to Fstoppers readers. However you will notice that I do not use the word interview in the title nor the first few paragraphs. I actually state it was a conversation, which resulted in an article that is from my point of view of what I gathered was Joe's approach to photography.

FWIW, I liked your approach and the way you presented the conversation. Far more interesting than an edited Q&A session. Especially enjoyed the photos linked with the dialogue.

Kirk Darling's picture

It appears to have been a conversation over coffee, not an interview.

I think his work reflects a certain silent genius. It's not necessarily flashy (some of it is) or fashion or genre-specific or anything in particular, but 90% of his images are just so good, particularly from a technical perspective. I love this two or three key point post - Joe connects with people; Joe never stops learning; Joe connects the dots between imagery and human emotion.

Douglas Turney's picture

By scott you got it!!! Thanks Scott that was the point of the article. I agree with you about Joe's genius. In today's world where it seems everyone focuses on just one genre, I really appreciate Joe's talent and ability to photograph so many subjects. He can photograph a person changing the light bulb on the Empire State Building to photographing Gorbachev standing in snow in the woods.

user-156818's picture

His "spirit and humor" certainly do make people feel at ease, but the biggest thing that stuck with me when I met him was how humble he is. Such a kind and humble person is deserving of the success he's had and I also think that's part of the ingredient to his images. He takes himself out of the image and let's it be all about the person he's photographing.

Douglas Turney's picture

Yes, I would say I got that impression too. However as he mentioned to me, he understands that he has to take control of the situation at times, which requires being not so nice. But isn't that just life in general?

user-156818's picture

Agreed. There's always a fine balance...in photography and in life. :)

Studio 403's picture

Boom....I am a Joe fanboy. I so appreciate his candor and authenticity when it comes to his craft. This is pure speculation, But I have had this thought his wife is the backbone of Mr McNally work. I became a Nikon shooter because of Mr McNally. I have endeavored to learn from his style and technique. As I age [72] accepting my limitations and recourses so nice to know, photography is ageless. I am not always pleased with Fstoppers style or subjects. Nor should I be. But Fstoppers for me is a wonderful resource for me. I hope I can visit fstoppers in the future and personally thank them for the diversity of subjects.