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Joe McNally: A photographer in pursuit of perfection

 

Joe McNally Photos: Billie Feng

It was 6 am on May 30, 2013. A foreigner wearing a black T-shirt and a pair of beige shorts was walking up and down the stairs briskly in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest in the Temple of Heaven. He was not doing some physical exercise; instead, he was looking for a perfect location to shoot photos. Joe McNally, a professional photographer from the US, was among the 50 foreign photographers invited by the Information Office of the Beijing Municipal Government to work on the annual project named “World Photographers Focusing on Beijing”. 

Joe was born in 1952 in Montclair, New Jersey. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Syracuse University, and now lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He has worked for world-famous magazines such as LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and Fortune. He is the last of LIFE magazine’s 90 staff photographers. He has won awards and honors in many places and been listed as one of the hundred most important people in photography in the world; however, he said, “The most important award to me is the good relationships I developed with people over time. That is important to a professional photographer.” 

Joe at work

Early contact with photography

Joe said he started to get interested in photography when he was in his junior year in college. “I didn’t discover anything about photography until I took a class in photography in school because I was training to become a journalist and a writer. It was part of my requirement to take a photography class because I was presumably going to work for a newspaper or something like that.” Joe fell in love with photography as soon as he took the class, which opened a life-long career path for a 20-year-old young lad. 

In the beginning, Joe didn’t have a camera of his own. “My dad had a camera and that was the one I borrowed and used for that class. He was always taking the family pictures with that.” When talking about his father, Joe felt very proud, “My dad was actually a pretty good artist. He was very visual. He drew cartoons and was very good at that.” Joe feels it is sad that his father was never able to become a real artist, “He grew up during the Great Depression. He went out and got a job to earn some money and support the family.”

When asked whether he has a gift for photography, Joe said, “When I took a camera in my hands, it just felt natural. It felt like this was what I was cut out to do. The viewfinder was pleasing to me and it was a way of expressing my imagination. I am very thankful for the fact that I have a bit of visual imagination and photography is a good outlet. Being a photographer intertwines with my life in a strong way.” 

Lucky to meet a good teacher

Joe once blogged, “Every once in a great while, if you are lucky, during the course of your schooling, at any level of that schooling, you might intersect with a great teacher.” He said he was much grateful to his teacher Fred Demarest, who opened doors for him to become a photographer. “He was the chairman of the photography department. He had big influence on me as a young student. He was a very good and kind professor and I owe him a great deal.” 

Joe and his teacher Fred Demarest Photo: courtesy of Joe McNally

Joe said he visited his professor about one month ago. “I was a little nervous when I made him a picture. I wanted to make sure I took the picture well.” Joe got an opportunity to go to London with Fred in his first year of graduate work in photojournalism. Fred gave him nine free credits, and the London program paid him five pounds a week to run the lab and maintain the chemistry. “It was not much money, but I learned a lot from helping my professor there.” Just as Joe wrote on his blog, “Your time with a good teacher is short, but the gifts they give you last forever.” 

Read more about what Joe thinks of his photography professor at www.joemcnally.com/blog/2013/05/15/a-wonderful-teacher/

Joe’s well-known works

Joe’s most well-known photo album is the “Faces of Ground Zero - Portraits of the Heroes of September 11”, comprised of 246 giant Polaroid portraits shot in the Moby C Studio near Ground Zero in a three-week period shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A large group of these life-size photos were exhibited in seven cities, attracting almost a million viewers. “The idea was mine. I wanted to find funding for it. The terrorist attacks were a turning point for every American and ushered in awareness of a new era in our national history. The World Trade Center was a powerful symbol. Its destruction had a major mental and emotional impact on most Americans. And of course it is a very difficult thing to weather.” 

Affected by the attacks, everything in the US came to a halt, including the photo industry. “All of a sudden, there was sort of nothing going on. Everybody was really in a state of shock, trying to figure out how to take the next step.” His love for his motherland made him feel compelled to do something to help his fellow countrymen recover from the disaster. 

 

Joe has also published some books such as The Moment It Clicks (2008), The Hotshoe Diaries (2009) and Sketching Light (2011). Most of them are instructions about photography. “I enjoy contact with other photographers, which is very inspirational to me. I like to share my experiences with people and see what they are doing.”

A modest celebrity

It’s not hard to sense that Joe is a modest person. His modesty could be felt from the first words he used to describe his hometown, “A tiny little place not too far from New York City.” 

Joe adjusting his camera 

When talking about the awards and honors he has won, he said, “This is only a job. Sometimes you do it well but sometimes you do it poorly. I’m glad I’ve had some impact in terms of my pictures and as a photography teacher, but beyond that I don’t really think about ratings and rankings. Photography keeps me humble.” 

During that day of shooting, Joe treated everybody in a very friendly way. Considering his age and knee problem, the organizer assigned him more assistants to carry his shooting equipment around. But Joe didn’t have the heart to see them do all the physical work alone. He helped load and unload the van, push the cart up slopes and assemble the pieces of equipment on site. He said he was grateful to everybody, including the assistants, the models and the stylists, “The photographs will show everyone’s efforts.”

Connections with Beijing

It was in 1987 that Joe came to Beijing for the first time, when he was commissioned by Sport Illustrated magazine to write a story about China’s emergence as a worldwide sports power. “I came here with a writer and an assistant. “We spent about three weeks in and around Beijing. I did stuff on sports schools and portraits of athletes. I did a good story on a gymnast in training, a six or seven-year-old girl. It was a wonderful experience for my first time in China.” 

Ballerina Photo: courtesy of Joe McNally

Joe said he could see new things and come up with new ideas every time he came to Beijing. “Beijing is continuously surprising and it’s always different from my hometown.” We could see his passion for photography clearly on that day. In order to get a good photo, he would even kneel on the hard stone ground. We heard that he had a surgery on one of his knees and would have another one soon. But the physical problem didn’t hinder the 61-year-old photographer’s pursuit of perfection. His love for Beijing can be well reflected in the photos he has taken in this city. The photo “Ballerina” he shot in the Summer Palace a few years ago is considered the best work he has contributed to the annual “World Photographers Focusing on Beijing” activity. When asked whether any of this year’s photos would outperform “Ballerina”, he nodded affirmatively.


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