On Photography: Joe McNally, 1952-present

“The most important piece of equipment in your bag is your attitude.” -Joe McNally

Versatile storyteller

There are very, very few subjects that photojournalist Joe McNally has not photographed. There aren’t many that he hasn’t. His skills are diverse. His specialty is lighting — knowing what light to use to frame his subject in glowing luminescence.

He has made portraits of notables — George Lucas surrounded by characters he created in front of a theater with “Star Wars” on its marquee. Or a photo of Mikhail Gorbachev standing amid trees in a snowfield.

He has photographed a stealth B-2 bomber, ballet dancers, children eating ice cream or wearing tutus and tiaras, and Usain Bolt running a gold medal-winning race.

His fantasy stories show a woman jewel thief fleeing a museum with necklaces in hand or a detective with a suspect of a murder in a blue and pink lit laundromat.

He has traveled to over 50 countries chasing photographs. Joe says, “Our pictures are our footprints. It’s the best way to tell people we were here.”

On Photography: Joe McNally, 1952-present
Joe McNally

Copy boy

McNally studied journalism at Syracuse University in upstate New York. One of the requirements in the program was a photography class. In an interview with Phil Mistry, he said, “I stayed in school because I started learning about photography late in my tenure as a student, so I stayed two more years and did a graduate degree, masters in photojournalism at the Newhouse School of Journalism.”

School did not prepare him for real-world journalism. He moved to New York City and looked for work as a photographer. When that proved unfruitful, he took a full-time job as a copy boy at the New York Daily News, at the time a major newspaper. It was his foot in the door into journalism. He almost turned down the position because it was not the title he wanted — photographer. He spent three years with the paper but never as a photographer.

A staff reduction at the Daily News left McNally with no income but a huge contact list. He knew people at The New York Times, United Press International, The Associated Press and others. He started freelancing.


McNally has advice for those seeking what areas of photography or life to pursue. “Drive yourself to the point of finding out what you’re really good at, what you’re happy shooting, and what you will still be happy shooting in 10 years. Then follow that track,” he said.

He stresses how important it is to be able to write. Proposals, well-written ones, get jobs and projects. McNally knows this from experience in studying writing in college. He understands that there is a real connection between the written word and the visuals he creates. Often his images are realized from scenes he has written.

He suggested to Time Warner that he make life-size original Polaroid 40-by-80 inch portraits of 246 heroes from the 9/11 tragedy. The proposal was accepted immediately and led to museum exhibitions and the book “Faces of Ground Zero: Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001.”

On Photography: Joe McNally, 1952-present
“Faces of Ground Zero: Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001”

The real deal

Joe McNally’s new book from Rocky Nook, “The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer” is full of delightful stories of his adventures and importantly his mishaps and the lessons they taught him. He discusses light lenses and cameras as well as the human side of photography. He tells the history of modern photography too. He describes assignments shot on film before digital capture. He explains how he made the transition to digital with stories from assignments for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic.

McNally proposed a story to National Geographic in 2003 to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane flight. “The Future of Flight” was the magazine’s first all-digitally captured story. When asked if he shot a film backup, he said, “Nope. I didn’t. I never shot a scrap of film during the entire shoot.”

The Pegasus experimental X-47A Navy drone in the opening photo was shot at the China Lake Naval Air Station for the story.

Sources: Petapixel, Rangefinder, Joe McNally.

Photography stories that inspire are in On Photography.