How To Be A World-Class Creative Pro w/ Joe McNally
Hey, everybody. How's it goin'? I'm Chase Jarvis and welcome to another episode of The Chase Jarvis Live Show, here on Creative Live. This is the show where I sit down with the world's top creatives, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, with the goal of unpacking the most valuable, actionable insights that I can to help you with your dreams in career and hobby and in life. My guest today is one of the world's top photographers and photographic educators. His name is Joe McNally. Joe, welcome to the show.
Thank you. (upbeat music) (applause)
They love you!
Joe, welcome to the show!
How's it going?
Good, thank you.
Thanks for the invite.
Oh, I've been waiting a long time for this. You had me, you didn't know you were waiting, but I've been waiting to have you on the show for a long time because, well, because of many things. First of all, your wisdom. Second of all, the show, the history of the show, is, a lot of folks at home know, like you know, my background is largely in pho...
tography. I've tried to sort of grow that footprint and help be a voice for creators all over the world, so this show, early on, was, it had a lot of photographers on it and they were disproportionately my peers, at that point, and so, it's been a while since I had a, someone who's self-identified, hard core, as a photographer and that's you. So, for the folks at home, who don't know, I mean, I can and will go on and on about you, throughout the course of this show, but for the folks who are new to the show or who don't know about your background, can you give a little, like, give me the career arc. I know you went to journalism school and you bailed on the writing part to take up pictures and go from there for us. Tell us a little bit of backstory.
That was a very gracious arc, there, as my career has only been, like. (laughter) You know.
Fidgety, twitchy arc?
Yeah. Yeah, it's not an even path, as you well know, you know. Yeah, I'm, I identify as a photographer. It's the only thing I really know how to do. It's the only thing I wanna do, you know? So, I fell into that. I wouldn't describe it as an accident, really. I mean, I had to take this class. I took my father's camera in hand. It felt natural. I felt a connection and secondarily, I started thinking, too, this could keep me out of an office. I'm not an office person, I'm a field person. So, things tumbled forward from there. I came out of Syracuse University, the Photojournalism program there, really, at that point and time, was churning out newspaper photographers. That's what I thought I would be. I thought I would be a black and white, straight up, newspaper shooter. I went to New York City, which was kind of a moment of idiocy, thinking I could crack the big city somehow as a green, untested, unlearned, learned, however you put that, photographer. The only job I could get was that of a copy boy at the New York Daily News, which was, in retrospect, a fantastic thing to have done, because it was a hot type, tabloid, New York City newspaper that ran 1.5 million papers. Every night had a staff photography, or numbers of staff photographers were 55, 56, 57.
Somewhere's in there. I mean.
Yeah, just completely different.
So, I'm glad I go that window. Long story short, you know, moved on from there. Daily News fired me, so, I had to move on. (laughter) Didn't have much of a choice.
Did they fire you 'cause your skills? Or 'cause you're a smart ass? Or?
No, they fired me at a staff layoff, you know, the economic rumblings that we currently experience, or know to be experienced in the newspaper market now, actually were present in faint tremors, back then.
Of, you know, the newspaper's future and so, last hired, first fired, you know. Did wire service work. I was what was called a stringer for any number of organizations. New York Times, Associated Press, UPI, Philadelphia Inquirer. Fell into another job which required me to shoot color. I was a staff photographer for ABC Television in New York and that was a kind of a weird gig, you know, to be sure. You know, Susan Lucci, you know, on All My Children, then ABC Monday Night Football, and shooting a still-life of an Emmy in the studio and then, off on a documentary with 20/20. You know, good versatility to be deployed there. You know, good kind of primer. Only stayed there for year and a half. Started to shoot color. Started to find that I had a good color palette and then, started freelancing for magazines and I've been a freelancer ever since, except for a brief stint in the '90s, where I came onboard at Life Magazine as a staff photographer for about three and a half years.
You were their last staff photographer, ever, weren't you?
I personally accept responsibility for the death of photojournalism. (laughter) You know, I'm the last, last one.
You're like, it was me. My bad!
Yeah, I'm sorry.
Shot a couple of bad rolls of film. (whistling) Or my first digital pictures, with that point one megapixel camera. So, over that arc, we'll go back the arc. You're still calling it bumpy, I'm painting a nice arc picture. Some of the things, one of the reasons I wanted you on the show is because you've seen so much. Not just the transformation of an industry, not just because you get up and go to work as a maker every day, but because you've seen so much. You're always doing imitations of having photographed this particular star or this corruption moment in government or you've seen so much. Give us some highlights for, again, to recap, like New York Times, Life, Time, National Geographic, the iconic opportunities for photojournalism. What have you seen? What's some shit that you've seen?
Yeah, ups, downs, and sideways, you know? The world that you visit as a photographer is sometimes incredibly gracious and wonderful. The beautiful thing about bein' a photographer is that you often times get assigned to go photograph somebody because they are so excellent at what they do. So, you get to visit genius and have a witness to that. You know, I've photographed Placido Domingo, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Bennett, people like that for Life Magazine, who just enormously talented, you know, can be occasionally difficult, you know. (chuckles) Lenny was a character, you know. I liked him very much. I actually loved him. He was difficult to be around. Difficult occasionally to photograph. He also authored my most, one of my most in bed, there's many, embarrassing moments as a photographer. I was assigned to photograph him in upstate New York at, forgive me if I'm getting this wrong but I don't think I am, Tanglewood. Outdoor, beautiful, symphony space, shooting a cover for Newsweek, which I never got. Lenny wasn't feeling well, couldn't get access to him, so, I photographed him conducting, you know, in a real time sense. The folks at the center were very nervous about having a photographer roaming around and I was so desperate that I realized when he was taking his bows and walking off the stage, I didn't have even a semblance of a cover and my assistant was, had a flash, an old Norman 200B on a stick and I was moving around and I just, I went to Chris, I looked at him, and I said, on the stage and the two of us jumped on stage.
You accosted him?
Well, he knew, you know, he knew me and I started photographing him as he was on stage, taking his bows, and he's looking at me and people are standing and applauding and all the sudden, I realized, holy shit, I just jumped on stage. (laughter) Needless to say, the administration of the conference center or the center there were not happy with me. Lenny loved it! At the end of the.
'Cause you made it went great! He's taking his bows, in front of this, like.
He grabbed me by the waist at the end of it. He pulled me in, he gave me a big kiss on the lips. (laughter) Which was Lenny's standard, you know, kind of, you know, greeting or farewell. So, you end up witnessing amazing people, amazing things, disturbing things, you know. I've never been a war photographer, per say, but I've seen some, you know, terribly upsetting things, you know, over the course of time. You just do, 'cause that's the world that we cover.
The moments have been certainly, occasionally high, occasionally low. My own participation in photography has had a similar kind of a feel to it, you know. There's been years I've done well. There've been years I've done poorly. I used to teach at the Eddie Adams workshop in Upstate New York and I was a team leader there for oh, I guess maybe, 14 years or somethin' like that and we would always, as team leaders, have to compile a set of pictures, five pictures I think we were limited to, to introduce ourselves on stage and I always tried to make it five pictures I had shot that year and there were some years I remember, you know, I had a hard time comin' up with five good pictures I had shot in a year.
Keeping in mind your standards are.
I know. (laughter) But, you know.
I'm not asking the world.
You say to yourself, you know, what am I doing? You know, this has not been a good year creatively, at all.
So, you have years like that. I'm pretty dogged, though. I mean, I really love photography. I love the idea of the interactions and relationships that can develop around the picture making process.
So, I'm pretty tenacious about that.
Well, tenacity is a thing I've, I think we're coming up on a hundred of these episodes, and tenacity is, regardless of genre of creator, whether you're a movie star, a photographer, a scientist, you're a builder and tenacity to overcome adversity, tenacity to break into an industry that is, historically, very few people can break into, so, in your own words, tell me a little bit about what that tenacity, a, what does it look like, you know what does it feel like and then what do you feel like that has provided for you throughout your career. Tenacity.
Describe it, because people talk about the tenacity is, I hate the word risk because it's just such a, oh, that's risky, but, you know, what are you risking? Are you risking losing your life or are you risking, you know, losing 10 bucks? And, sort of, think tenacity has that same, it's very easy to say, oh, that person's so tenacious, but what does tenacity look like for Joe McNally?
You know, as photographers, we hear no a great deal and that can be really deadening to the spirit if you're not a frickin' tenacious person and tenacity has a, you know, you described it in broad terms, yes. Specifically for me, I'm a bulldog when it comes to a situation with a camera in my hands. You don't want me to be assigned to you. (laughter) You know, 'cause I will not give up, you know. I got sent many years ago by Sports Illustrated to photograph Seve Ballesteros, who is a unbelievably good professional golfer, now deceased, sadly. I was sent to Padrania in Spain with an assistant by Sports Illustrated and I showed up at his doorstep and he looked at me and he said, my agent told me that I could do this story and it would be done in an hour. And I said, you know, Sports Illustrated doesn't send two people half way around the world to photograph for an hour and the battle was on. (laughter) You know, and I battled him for a week, you know, and he would come up to me and I would stalk him.
You know. He'd go out for a practice round, I'd be in the bushes with a 400 millimeter lens. He knew I was there, you know, and he'd come up to me, he says, you're bothering me and I was like, the fur came off. (laughter) Really, during, you know, the varnish sort of evaporated.
I thought, dude, you play golf. You do pressure putts in front of ten thousand peoples at the Master's. I'm one photographer and I'm bothering you? And so, we fought it out, we fought it out, we fought it out and I managed to carve out a story. Sometimes, it's a grind. Sometimes, it's a pulled tooth.
It's not, kind of, this gift, you know. I think too many people, and you know, I think as an industry, we might be a little bit responsible for this where photographers might say, oh God, it was, it was so beautiful. I mean, you know, that happens to me like, once, every 10 years.
Where the angels sit on my shoulders.
A poetry moment.
You know, it's like, oh my God. For most of the time, this is work and anytime you have a career that is based on one vector, like you know, I don't do brain surgery on the weekends. I'm a photographer, you know, there's no part time about this at all. So, I wake up in the morning and I think about it. I go to sleep at night, I'm dreaming of pictures, you know, 'cause the unromantic thing about being a photographer, making a living at this, is that, every day you have to find a way to turn your time or your pictures into money and that is, as I say, not romantic, and it's not kind of wondering the streets of Morocco and the late lights and it was beautiful. No, it's like, you know, I got 15 minutes to shoot a CEO who doesn't wanna be photographed. You know, but they're gonna pay me 2,500 dollars or whatever it is, for that session. So, you weather the good assignments, the bad assignments, the indifferent assignments. You accept the fact of failure on a regular basis and you just keep fighting through it.
Tenacity is, as I said earlier, it is a core element of the personality of 100 out of people who have sat on this couch and who have talked about their career. Failure also comes up a lot. You mentioned it twice, at least twice in that last little, in that last little dialog that we had. Talk to me about failure, about your experience.
Sure. Constant component of what we do is failure. Failure, as someone once said, very famously, failure is a form of progress. You know, you can't help but learn from failures and if you're on easy street all the time, something is wrong or your self-assessment is seriously skewed, you know.
One of those two things must be true.
You know. I have failed many times in my career. Sometimes, it's been, sort of, disastrous in terms of a relationship with a client. Sometimes, it's been just a failure of will or ego or you feel like you didn't have, and this is the beautiful thing actually, about getting older with a camera in my hands, is that when I was younger, certain kinds of pressure would make me start vibrating like a tuning fork. You know, somebody'd tell me I haven't got any time to work. You know, I had an early assignment. I used to shoot a great deal for People Magazine, which I loved. People, actually, back in the day, was a black and white, pretty journalistic magazine. Always had the star thing going on, but it was also kind of a cool book to shoot for and I got a lot of really good assignments from People. One of which was to spend an evening with Cher. You know, and I just, I look back on that night and I came up with some okay pictures, you know, but, I realized afterwards that, she steam-rollered me. You know that I just couldn't draw a line in the sand and say, no, we're gonna, no, no, I need more time, no. You know, and that teaches you a lesson, you know. As you go forward, you grow more confidence.
Where those pictures failures? Is this a recovery from failure or is the a.
They were failures relative to what I could've or should've done. I have a picture in my head that I should've done and I thought about, you know. There were two dumb bells sitting in the corner of her suite at the Morgan. She was in the Morgan penthouse on Madison Avenue and the editorial instincts failed in me. The title, or the gist of the story, is right after she had done Moonstruck was Cher's new found Hollywood muscle and I should have had her take her jacket off and start doing some bicep curls or something with these weights with all of New York behind her and I didn't and she came to the door, posed quietly, and then said, we gotta go and I got a picture that ran as the lead, you know, but, you know, that old philosophy, you know, if you can't make 'em good, make 'em big and in color. (laughter) You know, this one was black and white, but it was big.
So it had some impact. But I knew. I knew this was hollow.
This was not what it should've been. So, I failed on that assignment, you know. I failed any number of times, you know. There's certain things that stick with you and kind of gnaw at you. Those moments, because that's what photography is all about. It's about that intersection and you make that intersection permanent by photographing it and if you miss it, then it's downstream, it's over it and never to be reclaimed, so.
Specifically, any pictures that you were a quarter of a second late that stand out to you?
Oh, sure, sure. I mean, one of my, oh God, you know. (laughter)
I'm sorry. It's like pulling, pulling neck hairs out one at a time.
Can I put the pillow down here and stretch out and say, doctor.
You're on the couch.
Yes, I had this terrible childhood. But, no, I, you know, when I was growing up, as a kid, I worked a lot for the Associated Press, and there was a very gracious gentleman, Tommy DeLustro, who was the AP editor and I was shooting the Belmont Stakes. He gave me finish line, you know. First test, like fourth, fifth race, bang on, you know? It was back in the day when you would soup your film right there at the park.
Yeah. And then they would transmit right from the park.
For translation, what that means is you develop your own film, right there, and you clip out, you probably you're doing a little bit of editing in the field, as well, right? Or are you just sending the roll off?
What we do is, you bag it.
And a messenger runs it back to some poor dude who's in a dark room the size of a telephone booth.
And he's hot-souping in accufine all the photographer's films, you know, they're coming in. So, and then, the editors are moving so fast, they edit wet.
And they just run a black and white strip across an agfa loupe, looking at a fluorescent light, and.
Take the shot.
And they, those wire service editors were good at that, you know.
I'm sorry, go back to your Belmont Stakes, fourth race.
Yeah, everything's cool. Tommy goes, film is clean, channel looked perfect. Okay. I go out and for the eighth race and I blew it. Or, was it the eighth race? Or, the last race of the day was the Stakes and I blew it. I was, I keyed on the favorite and didn't realize or I was tight on my lens and I keyed on the favorite and didn't realize that horse that won the race was actually north of my lens and I swung at the last minute to pick up the leader and completely out of focus. And Tommy was so gracious, he taught me a good lesson. Some editors woulda just literally, almost beat the snot out of you, you know.
And Tommy said, Joe I wanna talk to your film later. Alright, I knew, I knew. And he took me to the side. He didn't embarrass me. He didn't take my pants off in front of all the other photographers.
He said, you know, film was off, you know, I can't use it and I'd, couple of things I learned that day, how to accept failure, how to, how to treat failure if you know, I ever had to critique another photographer and also, getting firm footing. I was, when I swung, my left foot slipped, I always remember and I was off. You know, I was off. So, you take that experience into other things, bigger things. I shot the first three launches and landings of the space shuttle and those were difficult assignments 'cause your normal lens, from a manned position, was about 800 to 1,000 millimeters. I had 1,200. I had 800.
How old. Had a 600 on a camera bar on a heavy duty tripod and you'd wire all three cameras to a foot pedal and then your tight lens was your, the lens that you would measure with that would, if you stayed in register on your tight lens, all the other lenses followed along. So, you know, and the rocket goes and you just push on that bar and you just follow, follow, follow, follow, and it's not easy, you know, because the rockets' rumblin', people are screamin', and that will just flat rattle some folks.
You know, so I learned, you know, about just, you know, staying within yourself. Staying calm in that moment. The return of the hostages. People screamin' and shoutin' as the buses came in to West Point. Forget it. Block it out. Stay focused. Stay with the action. You have a job to do, you know? That, those were important lessons that early failures taught me in many ways. Later on, of course, there are other, you know, things that just would happen, you know? Failures of mind, body, and will. Failures of gear. It's always, it sits on your shoulder.
You know? Murphy, (laughter) is in your camera bag. Always railin', ready to jump out.
That damn law.
So, this show isn't about photography, but it's about creativity. It's about learning and making and doing and being and becoming the people that we wanna become and so many of your examples are, obviously, keeps specifically into your career and that's why you're on the show, but how 'bout you do the work for me for a second and extrapolate around that concept of failure, not in gear or in cameras or in focus, but in life. Like, what are some of the things that you feel like you look back on and maybe, you gave this for your career and you wished you wouldn't or you only gave so much of this around your craft and you wished you would've given more. Like, this is like sort of capitol f failure rather than on assignment. Do you have any of those stories?
Yeah, I mean, the, you know, the little failures, yeah, the day to day stuff, the bigger failures I think are, you know, more crucial, more pertinent to your life in many ways. You know, I have two kids, you know, and I'd be the first one to say, I'm not, was not the best father in the world, you know, because I missed a lot of stuff and the Geographic was such, it's like the sirens on the shore, you know, and I started shooting for the Geographic when my oldest daughter was really small and I would go away for weeks at a time and that, I think, contributed to a sense of failure as a parent. I mean, and we all have those moments where like, oh my God, you know, I'm screwing these kids lives up or you know, I'm just, and, but that physical removal from the formative years of youth for your kids, that could be, you know, I think construed as a failing.
You know, I chose that life.
I chose that life and I think about it sometimes as, did I really have to do that? I had the skills to become a corporate photographer and make a decent living and be home. Was it my own ego? Was it my own need to play on a certain level of stage? Was it my own sense of curiosity and drive? Whatever those things combines to be, I chose to be who I was and that, I think, could be construed as a failure, on a certain level.
Yeah. What about one of the things that I have gone on record saying, is that, if people knew what it took to achieve that fill in the blank, I have used my own career and I have heard this from the career of others, they might not go for it, but with anything, it's like great risk. Like, what does it take to flip this around in his head for a second, to be a great parent? It takes an unbelieve, insane lifetime of sacrifice and focus and I think the same can be true for success in a career. So, to use that same story that you were just telling about your relationship to your daughters as a parent, could you have achieved the success that you achieved? You've dropped casually and without ego and almost incidentally the names of the top, every single one of the top publications in the last hundred years, you've just mentioned them. Oh, and then I was on this story for SI, and then. Could you have achieved what you achieved without compromising on your role as a father?
Probably not. I think any, any objective you have in life needs a sense of constancy and you know, I can find all sorts of rabbit holes to run into and say, well, I had to make a living. You know, I had to provide. You know, pay mortgages and school bills and all that sort of stuff and what can I give back to the kids? I gave back to the kids a sense of adventure and you know, I would take 'em with me when I could, you know. My kids are well traveled. My youngest daughter has been to China three times, Malaysia, you know, Tokyo. I mean, you know, so, you try to compensate but, I think, yeah, especially as a young photographer, I think again, one of the beauties of getting a bit older, about this is that there is, finally, finally, some sense of perspective.
You know? And I've had photographers, younger photographers, I've talked to are kind of breathless in their own egoistic way and you do need an ego in this field. There's no two ways about it. You gotta say, you gotta convince people to follow your lead, have ideas, be articulate about those ideas. You can't be a wilting flower in the corner and succeed as a photographer, but there are times, I think, when I look back where, all of us who came up at a certain point and time in photography thought that this was just gonna go on forever.
You know and that the world kinda spun around, you know, our pictures, our efforts and we felt that it was important work and, certainly some of it was, but there was also this, you know, wisdom, that starts to occur, naturally, over time when you realize, achieve some perspective here, Joe, or anyone, you know. You did this work and this sounds a little harsh, because people do care, but, you have to kinda give yourself a check and say, nobody really cares. You know, like I had the cover of Life and the cover of National Geographic, in the same month, (chuckling) at one point in time. And I was like, whoa.
I realized, shut up about it, 'cause nobody cares. Actually, they care so little about it, they don't even wanna know about it. They don't even want you to drop that in a conversation because it's frickin' obnoxious. So, you stay quiet about it. I think one thing I have learned over time, and this is nothing new, if you're achievements are substantial, you don't have to shout about 'em. They speak for themselves. Any photographer who steps forward and says, you know, (beats chest) that kind of thing. Sorry about that.
The mike can't all take it.
There's a microphone here, Joe. (laughter) (swatting sound) I've read blogs and listened to photographers who have said, well, I think this picture will go down as being my most iconic. You know, when someone says that, you know, a couple of things. You know the picture's not iconic and you know that they know it. So, they're trying to reassure you of it's status. If it's iconic, dude. Just leave it alone.
'Cause it will shout volumes louder than you can.
You know? So, humility is a huge lesson that I think you need to learn and to shrug. Look, at the end of the day, what am I? I'm a freelance photographer, you know? You spend time with FDNY and that, you know, in a fire house, there's always a character they call a topper. If you've got a good story.
He's got one better.
He's got a better story. (laughter) If you got laid last night, he got laid five times. (laughter) You know, I mean, that kinda thing, you know? So, you learn, you know, and I've spent a lot time with FDNY. Good bunch of people, you know, and we pulled out. I did a project that, to a great degree, was about FDNY after 9/11 and their big prints, their life size prints, anyway, hard to move this stuff around. The crates are 2,000 pounds. We didn't have any money at all, but the firefighters, I talked to a few people. We wanted to stage it at the Firefighter's Museum, in New York.
That's an incredible body of work, by the way. Just a small pause there. Incredible.
Oh, well. It's an incredible group of people I was able to stand in service of, you know, and so, we brought this stuff out. The crates are 2,000 pounds and so, firefighters volunteered, went over to the storage area and they're pulling and hauling on these crates and I'm in there, foolishly, like, trying, hey, you know. I'm like the kid in the touch football game in fifth grade, (laughter) who's got the short arms, you know? Hey, can I play? Can I play? You know and I'm pushing on this crate and Keith Johnson, who is just a wonderful guy at Ladder Six, just, just frickin' straight-arms me and he pushes me away from the crate and he goes, Joe, stay away from the crates. He goes, we're firefighters. We got lifetime disability. You throw your back out on this thing, he goes, what's gonna happen to you? He goes, Joe, you're a freelance photographer, nobody gives a shit about you. (laughter) I was like, true words were never spoken, you know? And so, that, that, you know, you get glimmers, you know, over the course of time that, glimmers of wisdom that, hopefully, become part of your daily, you know, expression of yourself as a photographer. Humility is a huge part of it and just accepting the fact that you have a certain role, you can do certain things, but at the end of the day, that's just a small, small piece of a much larger picture that you're, you might graciously be a part of, you know?
Yeah. I think the, one of the things, the sacrifice, that goes into hitting the level that you have achieved at your craft and the same could be said for any, any number of folks who are at the apex of their career. Again, whether you're a filmmaker or an entrepreneur, the sacrifice, at some point, every person has questioned it. They've said, wow, was this worth me being this sort of a spouse or this sort of a father or this sort of a human, in order to bulldoze all of this stuff to get the things that you wanted and I think one of the reasons that I'm interested in exploring this with you here is because I think there is so many people who are on the other end of this camera, or this interview, or this audio mike, thinking like, I definitely wanna do this, because that's how I will judge my worthiness, XYZ, and the message that I wanna send, and I'm looking for your either agreement with this or your point of view, the message that I'm tryin' to send is, hey, you know what? You can be a photographer and have a great time and just take pictures of your kids. You don't have to go to 11. You can shoot baskets and coach the high school basketball team and that can be phenomenal and it's not about playing in the NBA and winning the title and the MVP of the whatever, because that, that fraction of a fraction of folk, while they're worthy of a lot of attention and adoration, that's actually not what it's all about. So, give me a little bit of perspective on that, from your point of view. It's that, I'm kinda, I'm tryin' to distill a little bit what I heard you say and I'm wondering if I'm saying too much in your place.
No, I think this absolutely accurate. I think I coach a lot of people and I say it basically very similar to what you said. Look, you don't have to go to Afghanistan to be a good photographer or to shoot worthwhile pictures. First of all, shoot what you love and then, make it easy on yourself, make it accessible. You know, if you have to get on a plane, there's gonna be times you're not gonna do it. You know, especially if this is a self-generated thing. There's gonna be things that will interfere. Again, become the documentarian of your son's soccer team.
You know, and offer up your services in that way. Make it something that's near to your heart and near to you physically. Those things will work together to produce a good body of work. You don't have to, you know, just go over the top.
Yeah, there's two groups of folks that this show is in service of. The people who, what we talk about, going from one to 10. That's, you've identified, as a creative and you wanna get better and whether you wanna get better to a six or a and whether you wanna, you know, shoot your kid's bar mitzvah or you wanna shoot British royalty and wanna be the photographer for British royalty. Whatever your scale is. And then there's a whole another group of people and this is who I'm speaking to right now, the folks that are like, should I, is it worth while to make creativity a part of my daily life? I might be in a career that I'm stuck in. I don't love it but there is, there is just value in creating, regardless of achievement. So, if you could take a second and talk to the people, who you undoubtedly encounter these people in your life, who don't identify as creative. What would you tell them about, for example, the act of photography?
This sounds like an old saw, (laughter) but the simplest pictures are the best. I have a colleague. I don't even know her all that well, but she's retired now. Pam Spaulding, she was at the Louisville Courier Journal, and she did a story on birth and she got intrigued, synopsizing this in the most rudimentary way. She like the family and they were an average family, like, you know? What do we do as photographers? Like, we bring people into the studio because they're, like, like some big biker dude with a lot of tattoos, 'cause they look really cool, you know? Or some amazing athlete, whose got a body that's like, looks like, a Greek god, you know? We don't go to the family down the block that's got a couple of kids and goes to work every day, because it's like, boring.
Right? Well, she went back to this family. Baby just came home. She said, well, let me take another couple of steps. Photographed the baby coming home. Kept photographing, kept photographing. 25 years later and like, two or three children, I'm not getting the facts completely right here, the idea was, she made a documentary arc out of this family's life. She's actually photographed, I believe, these kids she saw being born, she's photographed their weddings, and this is a phenomenal document.
You know? And she did it largely self-generated and you know, so, you couldn't pick anything more mundane.
You know, 'cause that's what people do. They have babies, they make a family, they go to work, and she found beauty and joy in the simplicity of day to day life.
Yeah, it's an amazing documentary about a photographer whose work was all, you know, no one knew about it. This is a woman who didn't identify as a photographer. Didn't tell other people she was a photographer. Took pictures in her own spare time and developed the film, stashed it, and left, there's hundreds of rolls that were never developed and someone stumbled on this archive and it's just phenomenal work. So, it's not necessarily about the end result of your work but about the process. Is that the takeaway? I wonder what's your takeaway there?
It is the process, and it's also, you know, 'cause process is kind of a dry word and photography is anything but dry, you know? It's wet, if anything. (laughter) You know, it's dripping. It's bleeding.
You know? Photography becomes an extension of your head and your heart, to be sure. It also becomes a gift. What I have found over time is that the people who get in front of your lens, there's an exchange of gifts and they admit, you know, some things, you know, very cursory thing. Thank you, oh, yeah, bye, yeah, sure. I mean, you know, you know, we're not gonna exchange Christmas cards. This was a commercial transaction, but I find those pictures are less important to you over time than the relationships you develop with people who might have gotten in front of your camera at a stressful time in their life or they are, you're photographing them because they're ordinary folks who did something significant, or something like that. Grandmother of the year. Whatever it might be, you know, and I think that exchange of gifts is really profound because you treat them well at camera, they give you the gift of their presence, there's this, you know, a really good photo session is like Christmas morning.
It is, it feels good.
You know, there's just good feelings all around.
Yeah. You are one of the hardest working, most humble people that I know, whose been as successful as you have. Brag about yourself for a second. What are you great at? What are you world class at? (laughter)
Not too many people know this, Chase, but, oh, you know. (laughter)
Imitations, clearly, for one. Cartoon voices, for two.
Now I'm talking. What do you realize, I mean, you're obviously a very self aware person, but what can you point to picture or put a pin in about yourself where you know you're world class at these things?
Well, let's still put it in the category of trying, on a day to day basis, 'cause, I mean, the most important role I have right now, in my life, that I try every day at is to be a good husband. That is far and away the most important thing to me for the rest of my life, you know, and, 'cause I'm at a happy point in my life.
And I cherish that a great deal. There have been many times that photography became, again, a rabbit hole for me to run into because of a great deal of unhappiness and none of that exists anymore, on my horizon. So, if it came down to a choice of like, be a good husband and stay at home and not do photography anymore, the choice to me is, this point in my life, is obvious. So, I do try for that. In terms of a purely photographic, you know, accomplishment or something that I think I'm good at or we're good at, because as you know, your studio is a reflection of you, the people around you, it's a team effort. I think we treat people well. I think we're really very fair-minded about that. We do business well. We are honest to a fault. We're straightforward. We tell people what the deal is, on our end of things. If they're gonna meet us at a certain point, then we're gonna get together and do this. There's no shifting. There's no, you know, what if's or you know, yeah, let's you know, you know, maybe we'll give them those pictures, you know? There's none of that.
You know, this is, this is it. This is who we are. My name's on the door. I tell my assistants whenever, you know, I get a new assistant over time, or you know, says, look, I take the credit, I take the blame. I don't blame you for anything. Okay? You are part of the team and if things go well, I'm like, hey, yeah, okay. Thank you very much, yeah, yeah. Whatever, you know? Things don't go well, it's me. It's on me. So, I have a really serious responsibility to treat people well who we encounter photographically, and also, to treat the people around me well and be fair-minded. If the studio does well, everybody does well. You know, and so, that to me is a very, very important part of my life that photography is this gift. It's this amazing thing I've had a career and a life. I've put kids through college and you know, paid mortgages, and with nothing except what has come through that lens and I'm still standing and I'm still doing it. So, if you wanna, you know, throw a dart at the wall and say, that's an achievement, then okay, I'll be comfortable with that.
Absolute, world class. You've built an amazing, not just a living, a life, but you have given back to so many people. I mean, a thousand people showed up physically in building to learn from you in Washington, D.C. So, at least a thousand people. We know you've been around all of the shows and all of the, you know, your own social reaches is massive. You've done an amazing job giving that same gift that you have to so many people, so don't forget about that one. 'Cause that's one of the reasons you're here in Seattle where we're recording this right now. You're doing a Creative Live coming up pretty soon. We're just hopin' to amplify that, but you're an incredible educator. Is it, I'm breaking a wall here, but I'm asking, like, in the all-hands meeting, I called Joe the best photographic educator of all time, did I not?
Is that right?
Something pretty close to that.
Pretty close to that? There you go. So, thank you from me and the community. You're amazing, amazing asset to the world. Let's go into a little bit of a rapid fire.
What's the morning look like for Joe McNally? Morning.
Morning. Usually up between five and six a.m. Usually some sort of oatmeal.
Yep, yep. Trying to stay away from juice. Tryin' to lose the weight. (laughter) You know?
It's easy to slug back a pint of juice, isn't it?
Didn't even have to blink.
You know, Annie and I are together at home. Her workstation is the kitchen, really, because she loves it there, because Sammy the cat comes down and sits next to her computer and she's able to scratch Sammy behind the ears all day long, and Sammy, of course, doesn't object.
You know? I go downstairs. Our work room is downstairs and we have four workstations. I go to my workstation and sometimes, for longer than this, but you know, for 30 minutes or an hour, I do social media. You know, one of the things that I learned a long time ago, somebody whose teaching about social media said, remember, it's social. It's a two way street. You can't just have people sending you questions and not respond or you know, sending you messages, like, hey, Joe, I really like that. So, be gracious. Respond. I don't get to everybody but I try my best to do that and I pay attention to our Instagram feed, try to orchestrate what might be a coherent approach to that. I've got writing to do, oftentimes, a blog upcoming, or maybe an article that someone has asked me to write. Catch up on email and that, before you know it, it can be nine o'clock in the morning and you're looking around and I'm still in my pajamas and my sweats and it's. (laughter) People in the office start coming in and they're not unused to seeing me with my hair, like, up to here and like, you know? And that is oftentimes the way the day starts.
Are there any key habits that you have? That you ascribe to some of your success, like, you always, you know, run five times a week, you meditate, you eat oatmeal in the morning, you remind yourself that you're only as good as your last picture, where is your next picture. Like, is there a set of tools that are habits that you feel like that have either contributed to your success or been a pain in the ass?
Yeah, all of the above. I mean, when I'm home I try to get to the gym and the earlier in the day I can get to the gym, the more it translates into my frequency.
You know, 'cause it gets later in the day, you lose the urge. And, you know, I try to be unafraid of my imagination so, and I realize that I'm not the most productive person in the world, at the studio. Like, everybody else is there, like, banging away, shippin' pictures. Lynn, my blessed studio manager, has got the fiercest work ethic, more like, right up there with Annie, actually, 'cause Annie is our Director of Social Media and Marketing and they work so hard and they're so organized and I kinda am envious of that in a lot of ways, 'cause I spend part of my day staring out the window, but at the end of the day, I realize that's probably the most valuable thing I can do, because that's where ideas come from. Photographers nowadays, especially, have to be very proactive about the creation of their own future. The phone doesn't ring the way it used to. Maybe for certain photographers it does, certainly does not at our studio. I think that's a pretty universal condition. There's just not as much work as there used to be.
There's more work, but more people.
And there's a lot of people. And a lot of 'em are good.
You know, I'm sure you experience in the commercial market, you're triple-bidding a job and you know, if you get wind of who was also in the mix with you, you realize, good photographers.
You know, they're out there, you know? So, fierce. That's the level of competition out there. So, you know, when I think of things, I try to translate into what could that be in terms of a proposal. How could I push this to a magazine? To an entity? How could I create funding for this? How could I, maybe, use a workshop invitation to get me to a place where I could chip away at a story? So, that aspect of daydreaming, I think, is, while apparently, worthless. (laughter) 'Cause, you know, I could see somebody looking and say, what is he doing, you know?
Seriously, still staring out the window?
It's actually the most valuable part of my day.
Daydreaming is the most valuable part of your day. I love it.
You know, that's a constant with me. I have a good imagination. I will definitely embrace that. I grew up, I went to five different grammar schools, so I was always the new kid. So, I oftentimes found myself, you know, kind of, you know, tryin' to fit in, maybe having some success, whatever, but I also found early on that I had, you know, I had this, I would read stuff, you know, comic books, fantasies, epics, you know, Lord of the Rings kind of stuff, and it's funny, I think that still translates to my photography today. The hero point of view, strong color palette, comic books are a very powerful storytelling device.
Yeah, great reading.
You know, panel to panel. Those folks know what they're doing, to move you through things and so, so all of that wraps up into like, this, sort of, daydream world that I think about. Alright, who's the hero of this story? How can I make this work? Like, today, I had a client, I spent an hour, with a client, on the phone, before I came here, we're gonna shoot next week for them and we're workin' out the schedule and they were like, you know, here's the parameters, got any ideas? You know, okay, ignore a director.
You know, it's like, yeah, well, maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that. You know, so you're instantly spooling up that imagination process. That facilitates, hopefully, your photographs.
I love the, I think, it's a John Cleese line, that creativity isn't a gift, it's a habit or isn't a gift, it's a process, or somethin' like that. There's just, it's, again, you go to work. You go to work imagining and the more you imagine, the more capability you have for imagination. Interesting that you have a habit of daydreaming and that you support that. I think that's really cool. Adjectives to describe or, yeah, adjectives to describe a legacy that you might have.
Fairness. Decency, hopefully. Respect of my colleagues. You know, I think, you know, I grew up in an era, this, I don't want this to sound like a rant, because it's not. I accept the democracy of digital. I embrace it. I love the fact that there's more people out there, shooting pictures, than ever before. It's a fantastic thing. There is kind of this little bit of a gray zone where there's this tipping point where someone might think of themselves all of the sudden as being a pro photographer.
And might not be warranted.
Let me put it into gentile terms. I grew up in an era where, if you were a pro, you were a pro, you know? And in the circle of folks that, you know, were around me, very blessedly, when I came up, shooting for the Time, Inc. group of magazines, I mean, the legacy of photography there is very powerful. If someone described you as a pro's pro, that was high praise. It meant you could do anything with a camera and that, you know, when things go sideways, that's where it comes into play, you know. That you can really still produce, through adversity, photographs that are telling stories and communicating well. So, yeah, I mean, I think the respect of my colleagues is something that has always been an important component for me. That's if they hear my name, they're like, oh, yeah, he's a good shooter.
Yeah. We've spent a little bit of time talking about the zero to one group and how do you think about creativity and that you don't have to be a pro to enjoy the craft of making stuff. What would you say is, if we address the one to 10 group, the 10, the group that identifies as creative, beyond the craft, how important is all of the stuff beyond the craft? Of course, you need to be able to take a good picture, and ideally, using hourglasses idea of a creative gap, and that's the gap between the picture you see in your head and the one you can take or the painting you see in the head and the one you can paint. That's the craft. Beyond the craft, what do you think is important for those folks who are trying to take their work from a one to a 10 or they're industry or what they're trying to make a living or life or some money or get recognition, talk to me about, or talk to the audience, the people who are watching and listening, what beyond the craft would you coach people to think about?
I would say this about craft. It's necessary but it's also the easiest thing to learn about this. I mean, you know, F4 is F4. You know? There's not a lot a compromise or leeway there, you know?
Once you identify these relationships that are involved in the craft of photography, that becomes bedrock, that becomes necessary, but it's like a computer program that's running in the back of your head. It should never be in the front of your head. You know, it's just that underpinning of technical knowledge that's gonna support what you want to say and that, learning that, learning like, what do I wanna say with this photograph? There's a lot of really, kind of, pretty work, you know, that gets done in this digital age, you know, that we're very much about single imagery. You know, banner on the website? Click. You know, an un-relatable picture or a picture that's floating there, that might be kinda interesting, but it doesn't move beyond that. So, one of the things that is the hardest thing to do, I think, as a photographer, is make pictures that have interrelationships, that move the reader, the viewer, from point a to point b to point c, et cetera. That take them not only on an informational journey, but also, an emotional one. To get a picture in the National Geographic, in its hay day, the picture had to fire on at least three cylinders. Had to be pictorially successful. You know, had to be attractive.
You know? Had to stop ya, like, a little bit of eye candy to it, maybe. Stop you on the page. It had to be informational. Move the story along and it had to be at it's best, emotionally involving. That's when you have your viewer sort of, kind of, in the palm of your hand, 'cause then you've hooked 'em and you make them stop and you make them aware and you convey understanding and you make them hungry for more and you make them actually bare down and go through this journey with you. It's a very hard thing to do, right?
I mean, you have this visceral emotional experience in front of your lens. How many times have you been out there and you just, like, are lathered up about the photographs that you're makin' and you bring 'em back to the computer and it's like, the fuck was I thinking?
You know? (laughter) 'Cause none of this, on the screen, has the emotional immediacy of what I was seeing out there, 'cause it, gotta translate through this infernal machine, this machinery that we've got here. It's still, it's a marvelous thing. Cameras, digital cameras, are fantastic but they're also still a machine. They are between us and the experience. So, how do I convince somebody that what I'm seeing right here in Seattle is gonna be informative to them in Tokyo? They're not here with me. They're not having that experience. How do I convey the importance of that experience? And that's where all of that craft comes together, swirls together, with the way you identify moments, the way you parse things out emotionally, that has, it's like, Bill Alec, at the Geographic, who's a phenomenal storyteller. He likens a good photograph to counterpoint in music. You know, just kind of, that tempo shift or something. I grew up with a bunch of photographers who, you know, really felt, very validly, that photographs, Carl Meidence, used to say it at Life, the camera is the most important force for social change in history, and I firmly believe that when you see an incredibly powerful photograph, you are changed forever. There's something in your compass that just got tilted and you might not be aware of it right then and there. It's just a little bit but it's with you now, forever. That photograph will never leave you.
People remember photographs more than they remember the moments, I've heard, that the moment is, because a photograph does such a good job, if it's successful, in not only encapsulating the emotions that you felt, while you were there, if you were the picture taker or if you were an observer, but it's like a tidy little package for these soft things that we've got in our skulls to hang on to, and if you can package those things up, I think that's, as you've said, the sign of like, a successful picture. All this stuff beyond the craft, I think is so important for any industry. It's not just about photography. There's the skill. I think about language, for example, what if, the way that you articulated it was, you need it in the background, not in the foreground. What if you were thinking about how you were cogitating and how you were putting the verb and the noun in order, in your mind, for every sentence you had to say? It'd be hard to say something very interesting, right?
Right, right. True.
And, the same is true for that. Whatever it is your craft, whether it's playing the guitar or, in this case, taking a picture, I think that's super astute and if you're listening and wondering, well, what does that mean? That's why you practice craft. So, you get so good and it becomes second nature and then you're able to focus on the real thing, which is, in this case, telling an amazing story, creating an amazing image that has stopping power, emotional connection, technical proficiency. All the things that you just listed. (sighs heavily) That was a lot. I would like to hear, in your own words, what's next for you. You've had this incredible career to bring it full circle. We talked about the arc. You made a joke about not so much of an arc but clearly, you've had an insanely successful career. This has made one of the more serious interviews I've ever heard from you. You're a very funny, jovial person, but, what's next for you? Is it more pictures, more education? Is it, are you doing some travel, more personal projects? How do you think about the gas that you've got left in the tank? Where do you wanna drive?
Yeah, that's a good analogy. That's a nice thing. Nice thing? Listen to me. (laughter) About being a freelancer. As fraught as it is, as I always say, you know, this bus has got two flat tires and you know, backfires and not very fast, but I still am able to drive it wherever I wanna go and that has power all unto itself. So, I do have projects in mind. I have things that I'm trying to get some funding for. I keep chippin' away at, you know, certain level. I have a tremendous interest in the performing arts. Not just ballet and dance, though I photographed them for many, many years, but also just the idea of those performers who get on stage, whether they're circus people or athletes or you know. Why do we spend a hundred bucks on a ticket to watch this person? And I'm interested in that obsession that creates that persona that is the magnet that fills a theater.
You know, and that, an on-going, you know, kind of self-funded. I self-assign myself a great deal and then I hope things come around later. You know, my studio manager occasionally is looking at me like, seriously?
Gonna spend that money?
Where you gonna, like, you know?
How you gonna make that back?
That day in the field cost us, you know, et cetera. You know? But she's the voice of wisdom and reason and tries to keep me pinging back and forth between these extremes and also keep me in the middle, you know, enough to realize that I have a responsibility, you know, in addition to this kind of gad about, let's go shoot some pictures attitude, that I still have. You know, I still have a sense of adventure about it. I talk about the adventure book. Let's turn another page in the adventure book and so, yeah, I've got some things in mind. To keep shooting, teaching is a component of our life at the studio. It's a very public component, because to teach in this industry you have to have that social media presence project, you know, outwards. Twitter and this and that. So, people might look and say, wow, he's teaching all the time. Underneath of it, the underpings in the studio are shooting. Commercial work and supporting this infrastructure. Not with workshops, 'cause they're lovely and their wonderful, but they're not going to sustain a studio operation. You have to mix in shooting with that. And, also, too, if you're going to teach, I think continuing to shoot validates the notion of being a teacher. So, I think the mix produces good things on both sides of the fence for you. Shooting in the field. There's no better way to learn lighting, for instance, than to teach it. I've learned a lot teaching lighting, you know? (laughter) You know? And vice versa. You know, the job that you just shot, gives a certain immediacy to the way you teach. Especially if you walk into a class and say, well, I shot this yesterday. And you show raw files. I'm very open about that. You know, I don't hide our process. There's nothing to hide. There's no mystery about this. We try to shoot good stuff. We don't do too much to it afterwards and we deliver it to a client. There's, you know, a pretty straight-forward, you know, train, that I'm drivin' here. So, I have no qualms about, you know, cloaking anything in mystery, you know. Or I have no qualms about revealing things.
You know, I don't try to throw a shroud over stuff. There's nothing to, there's no secrets to this business. There just isn't, really.
You know? Some folks might think there are, but I don't subscribe to that theory.
Yeah. Well, thank you for reminding us there are no secrets, for sharing your secrets with us, for continuing, not just in this interview, or show, but as you have done for a career, it's a treat. I call you my friend. It's a treat to have you on the show and stay world class, man. Thank you so much.
Well, hang in there. Thank you very much for being and for the invitation. Thank you.
Alright, see ya next time. (dramatic music)