In case you don't know the name Joe McNally, he's a critically acclaimed photographer who's shot for TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, New York, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated, LIFE and National Geographic. You can see some of his amazing body of work on his portfolio. He's also a prolific author, having written best-sellers about photography.
Joe was in town last night to give a talk about his 30 years in photography to Nikon Club and Nikon Professional Services members - and you bet I was there.
For a pretty famous guy, I found Joe very much down-to-earth, cracking good-hearted jokes at his own expense. His talk wasn't only deeply inspirational, it was also (surprisingly) deeply personal. He shared personal experiences from his own life in photography, not all of them positive. And he spoke frankly; I think nobody in the theater will forget what he said just before he jokingly did his Godfather impersonation where "nothing said here leaves the room."
One of his repeating themes from the talk was how his career in photography involved lots of peaks and valleys, of good years and bad years, and how important tenacity was for a photographer. He talked about how he once accepted a job for National Geographic which forced him to give up a gig that paid ten times more, and forced him to leave his two-year old child back home. The assignment to photograph the London dockyards had been tried and failed before, and if that pressure wasn't enough it also came with an ultimatum from his editors: Come back with a story or never work for us again.
Joe shared that he broke down when the assignment didn't go well, and he found himself crying in the mornings upon waking up. That's when he reiterated how important determination is, and how sometimes you'll stumble upon a good photograph and the wind goes back into your sails (he came back with great shots).
On another shoot for Sports Illustrated, he'd spent $40,000 of their money and four days into a five-day shoot he still hadn't gotten the shot. But on the last day, he got two usable frames, and that was enough. He cautioned that photography is an uncertain process, and that has a photographer you have to be comfortable with taking risks and making uncertainty your friend.
He talked about how photography is about telling stories, and how you have to take pictures which move the viewer from point to point all through the experience of the story so that at the end, knowledge is gained. That as a photographer, his job is to convey information and serve the reader, getting pictures that speak and make a point.
When asked about how to improve one's own photography, he advised that you can't be a good photographer unless you go back and look through classic photographs that are just as valid today as they were when they were published. "Nowadays, it's easy to make a photograph, but that's just a mechanism. Good photographs are hard to make, and that hasn't changed. What you have to do is to get a sense of this field. You have to find which photographs make your heart skip a beat when you see them and why, and the only way to know that is to study."
"It's not easy, but it has to be a passion which consumes. When I'm asked what photography means to me, I describe it as the stitching of my life; without it I would unravel."
Joe McNally is currently conducting a series of seminars in Singapore from the 11th of January to the 15th. Special thanks to Nikon Singapore for help with the talk.
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.