Viewing industry leaders in a more personal light to see what makes them tick
and helps them succeed. This month, famed photog Joe McNally opens up.
INTERVIEW BY TAMARA LACKEY
Tamara Lackey: For all your seriously
impressive accomplishments, accolades and
experience, you are also a very approachable,
down-to-earth guy. Was that ever a conscious
decision? Or simply you just being you?
Joe McNally: It’s pretty much me, I think. If I
ever copped an attitude when I was growing
up, my mother would box my ears pretty good.
And in high school I had the Irish Christian
Brothers, who would discourage shenanigans
and character flaws with a hard right cross.
My first jobs in this industry were at a big
NYC tabloid daily paper and the wire services.
No room for attitude there, at all. Incurring the
wrath of a NY wire service editor on deadline
was definitely a bad move.
To me, photography has always been
an exercise, first and foremost, in human
relationships. No matter how fast the photo
session, the more grounded and approachable
you are in encountering your subject—be they
masters of the universe or the grandmother of
the year in a small town—the better your pictures
will be. It’s pretty simple, really. Be decent,
friendly, curious and respectful. Works most of
TL: You’re on a plane and your electronics
are dead. You’ve read the magazine, you
have no book or notebook, there’s no TV, and
you’re not tired. What do you find yourself
JM: How to do my next picture or a future
project. I’m a great daydreamer. Staring out
the window to me is very constructive time. I
bounce off the walls of my own imagination
and, every once in a while an idea gets
dreamed up that actually becomes a picture.
TL: How did you propose to your lovely wife,
JM: I proposed in Ireland. I was crazy in love
with her and I got a ring and kept it hidden in
my bag as we both traveled over there to teach
a workshop. We had a great time, teaching
with the legendary Irish writer Frank McCourt.
When we finished, we had a couple days off in
Dublin. I chose this place called the Meeting of
the Waters, near the little town of Avoca, south
of Dublin, and got a car, a driver and a picnic
basket. Annie was perplexed but thought we
were just going shooting for the day. Even now,
she says she had no clue as to what I was up
to until I knelt down next to her on the bench
where we were sitting, near the water.
At customs on the way home, we
encountered a female officer who looked a bit
stern, so I volunteered that I had asked Annie
to marry me in Ireland, and Annie then showed
her the ring. She looked at me sideways and
said, “You asked her to marry you in Ireland?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied. “That’s points. Go ahead.”
She didn’t ask us any further questions.
TL: What did you almost give up but didn’t?
JM: I almost gave up photography. In the
aftermath of Ground Zero [and “The Faces
of Ground Zero—Portraits of the Heroes of
September 11,” a collection of 246 Giant
Polaroid portraits shot near Ground Zero in
a three-week period shortly after 9/11], we
had no work. It was a desperate, down time.
My sisters chipped in to pay a lawyer/work
counselor to sit down and advise me on a
different path. He kept offering suggestions
about how to parlay my meager skillset into
a new endeavor. I listened, and as he was
telling me what I should be doing, I once again
realized that I was doing the only thing I knew
and loved doing. I thanked him for his time
and went back to the studio. It took years of
shoulder-to-the-wheel effort to pull us back
up from drowning in debt, and Annie was
unbelievable during this time. We eventually
got back to a place where we could breathe,
and, lo and behold, I’m still a photographer,
which I’ll be until they put me in a box.
TL: What’s the best compliment you’ve
JM: It was from my wife. She was on the set with
me doing a small video, and I was acting out in
usual fashion, making jokes and impressions,
none particularly good, but amusing to a
degree. The PA on the set got exasperated at
one point and looked over at Annie. “Is there an
off switch?” she asked. Annie shot right back:
“I’ve never looked for it.” My honey!
Tamara Lackey is a photographer, author,
program host, Nikon USA Ambassador and
co-creator of the eco-friendly Lush Albums
( lushalbums.com). Joe McNally’s career spans
almost 40 years and 60 countries. Hear both of
them speak at WPPI in March (go to wppionline.
com for more information). P H
“ To me, photography
has always been an
exercise, first and
foremost, in human