My picture editor at the National Geographic sent me this picture the other day. It was sent to him by a long time colleague, who came upon this scene in a public bathroom. On the toilet is what we have come to call “The Red Book,” here at the studio. It’s a lighting brochure I did for Bogen where I employed the services of a leggy, beautiful Kazahk model for three straight days. This picture was accompanied by the following text:
I want to be among the very first to congratulate you on this remarkable new multipurpose product.
The new McNally “Moment I Come” autoerotic aid and bathroom tissue, all in one handy package, promises endless hours of very personal and private fulfillment. And, using high-recycled content paper, users will have the additional satisfaction of knowing they’re being “kind to the earth” even
as they’re being…well….kind to themselves.
In a time where major national magazines are dropping like flies in a bug zapper, its heartening to know this kind of inspired creativity continues, promising literally dozens of dollars of revenue over the product lifecycle.
Way to go Joe. You’ve got this, as they say “in hand.”
None of the above is surprising, or disturbing. Which may be, in effect, disturbing. I leave that for wiser heads to decide. Its just my old buddy Bill, best man at my wedding, editor of 8 major stories I have shot over the years for Geographic, bending his incandescent intellect in, well, a different direction.
Where’s Rodney when I need him?
Shot this many years ago, a five minute backstage portrait session. But with Rodney, it was always the right five minutes. His rubber face was ready for the closeup.
I’m no stranger to Bill’s jousting, of course. We have been friends a long time. Nowadays, when time allows, we have a phoner during his morning commute we call “the morning rant.” Topics range from the general disrepair of the photo industry, to the antics of government, to the wild and woolly state of things in the new millennium.
The momentous event of the passing of the centuries drove a couple of stories Bill conjured and then hung around my neck, much like a farmer might throw a sturdy yoke around an ox, then sit down in the cart and expect to go somewhere. Around that timely time, we did a story on the globalization of culture, and another, modestly titled, “The Universe.”
Both were corkers to do, and a lot of fun. (Its all fun in retrospect. At the time, Bill referred to my efforts at space photography as “The Universe Death March.”) He wanted me to do the globalization story very badly, as he well knows my psyche is a loosely connected pastiche of pop culture, bad movies, comic books, and celebrity magazines. By contrast, he doesn’t get out much, and his idea of a raucous evening is to drive his Prius out to the rolling hills of Virginia and after a meal of organically raised free range chicken breast and strained carrot juice, curl up with his favorite monthly magazine, The Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. He really did a Nat Geo story on nanotechnology. During this period, I remember calling him and asking how the story on “really small shit” was going.
I really wanted to do the Globalization story because research indicated at that moment, Baywatch was the most viewed television program on earth, and I was gonna be sent to Will Rogers Beach in LA to check it out. Purely, of course, in the interests of journalism and the subsequent advancement of peoples everywhere.
Truth be told, that may be the only story I really ever substantially contributed to the enormous database that makes up Bill’s brain. On virtually everything else we have done, I must confess, by the start of the story, he’s got the Ferrari of his intellect already in the passing lane of the interstate, while I am fixing a flat on the jalopy of my noodle, back over on County Road 213. He is remarkable in the depth and breadth of his interests and knowledge. He’s one of them, as that tribe of children said in Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome, “that’s got the knowin’. (See why he hired me for global culture?)
He’s also a helluva editor. Even though we are close friends, he has no problem taking off the buddy hat and putting on the dispassionate, “why the f**k did you shoot it this way?” hat. He is remarkable in his faith in the process of picture gathering, knowing full well that all photogs run themselves into innumerable rabbit holes during the course of a coverage. He has patience that the story will turn in our favor, and is willing to be steadfast during some of the rough sledding that inevitably accompanies any assignment undertaken. I’d love to say it all goes like clockwork out there, but it don’t.
He also allows me a tremendous participatory role in the editing process.
Here, he is showing me the one I’m going to like.
And, he has no problems telling me when my pictures suck, as they quite often do. His favorite phrase for a photo of mine that is going away forever is, “Joe, this one’s going to Toledo.” My apologies to folks in Toledo, cause there’s evidently a suburb out there filled with my shitty pictures.
I’ve shot a lot more bad pictures than I’ll ever shoot good ones. I’m quite comfortable admitting this. I have always been compelled by my time behind the camera, my love of actually shooting, no matter if I win, lose, or draw. And boy do I lose a bunch of the time. Every shooter does. The ones who tell you they are always knockin’ on heaven’s door when they take a camera in hand are bullshittin’ ya blind.
We all shoot bad stuff, good stuff, in between stuff. It’s the stuff of the photographic life. Failure is part of it. No shame there. If we knock it back all the time, or feel like we do so, then we’re not trying. As I always say, if the feeling of been there, done that, nothin’ new here, I’ve seen it all, let’s move along overtakes us, then its time to hang the cameras up. Then we can go inside and become editors!
Kidding, of course. Direct, constructive, dispassionate criticism are essential for any possibility of growth as a shooter. Without it, we are lost, and our interior compass loses any true reading or direction. There are photogs out there working who have evolved beyond criticism, of course. They have become their own outsized brand, big as Cheerios, pricey as Prada, and knowing as Dr. Phil. Think Oprah with an H2.
Anytime you got people thinking that the finger on the shutter is the finger Michelangelo’s touch of God was modeled on and the pixels jamming through the USB and splashing onto the Apple Cinema display in the studio should produce rapture amongst the natives on a scale of offering a virgin to the Kong–well, that’s a problem.
These folks should just spend a day with Bill. Highly recommended.
Cause this is hard to do, right? Day after day, you come back without a great or even good frame. I’m reminded of the conversation betweeen Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in League of Their Own.
Jimmy Dugam: “Baseball is what gets inside you, it’s what lights you up. You can’t deny that.”
Dottie: “It just got too hard.”
Jimmy: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”
There’s a lot of analogies between photography and baseball. Ray Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe wrote, “A critic once characterized baseball as six minutes of action crammed into two-and-one-half hours.”
Sounds like a photo shoot to me.
The picture up top is courtesy of Lynn Johnson, who quite simply is one of my favorite people in this industry. If you don’t know her work, you should. Lynn is a remarkably compassionate, direct, connected photojournalist. We have all been to photoj conventions, you know, where you occasionally hear from the podium that, you know, “I spent a few minutes with the family, and they began to trust me and I was able to move around like I was invisible.” Okay. That happens I’m sure. But I must confess, when I do hear stuff like this, occasionally I heave a bit of an inward sigh.
Not so with Lynn. She really does that. I have watched her work, and seen the results. Always, as I said, connected. Always honest. Always sympathetic to the human condition. She, as a photographic persona, remains in the background, becoming a remarkably transparent vehicle for real life to transfer to very real pictures on a page. She has my absolute admiration. The highest praise I can ever offer another shooter is, “I wish I had shot that.” Lynn’s shot a bunch of those.
Except, maybe, this bathroom snap. This one I might have passed on:-)
Or not. Ya gotta be able to laugh at yourself, at this industry, and at the machinations, peccadillos and affectations of those who labor in it. Personally, if I don’t laugh about 10 or 12 times a day at all the crap we have to slog through to participate in our current, motor driven version of cave painting, I would simply start crying.
And, as we all know, there’s no crying in photography. More tk.
Now that I have stopped rolling on the floor in hysterics, just wanted to say that
was a very funny and insightful look at the real world of photography.
Your views and reflections on the current state of the industry are spot on.
Keep it up,
Jase Bell says
The Geographic cover for the global piece still bowls me over everytime I see it. I remember walking past it in the newsagent in the UK. That was a few years ago and I never did know who did the cover shot until I saw the Google Labs talk you did.
Here’s to more, I’m loving it.
PS: Shot my first soccer match and spent most of my time looking at the crowd and the managers dig out then the match itself….. you are not a good influence 🙂
What kinda beer you drinking lately. I think Annie should be advised.
I am told baseball bats are for baseball. So Joe, be gently kind to yourself.
I do like your outrageous self honesty. But Joe, though I see dimly into hearts, you have the eyes of compassion in your lens. And for that, your job (or call) is to walk a path jaded with paradoxes and simplicity.
A heart must be broken before one can see.
Ken in KY
I am curious to know (as one of those people who ordered the red book… er… not for the above mentioned purpose); was it a successful piece of marketing for the company and therefor yourself? It’s a beautiful piece, large and well printed (a little fancy footwork with the print process in terms of varnish of course). But I don’t know if it has proved to be worth the expense for the company or not. Did it work out for you? I’d like to see more like it… er… again, not for the above stated secondary market.
Ryan McBride says
Hello Joe. In my early career as a photographer, i’ve noticed the inevitable respect bar, always at a low. Though I consider that being a high, or else like you said, it would be an expensive day of buying tissues to dry your soaked eyes.
I also wanted to touch base on the CIPNE seminar. I think you did a really good job, which is exactly what i expected from someone of your caliber, and i left there fulfilled, and not ashamed that i had missed my first college course for the year, and was a half hour late for the next(good thing im able to get the grades). It was great to briefly, officially meet you, and watch your expertise put into play, and i was honored and taken aback that you had me assist you in the last portion, to hold the strobe and diffuser i believe it was, out in the lobby. Thanks for a great, worthwhile day, and i hope to be able to see you at another workshop in the future.
R. Kneschke says
Very entertaining story! You got me laughing, especially with your Toledo-Joke. 🙂
Scott Cejka says
Joe, I laughed, I cried, it was better than cats! Seriously, thanks for the humor and the nuggets to ponder. It’s always great to keep things in perspective when you think you’ve got all this photography stuff, “in hand” as they say. Not that I do…or have ever, or…will ever admit to.
Keep on keepin on!
I always look forward to reading your posts. I have a question: what is the “tk” that appears at the end of each post.
Oh, just remember – it always could be worse 🙂
(and did laugh quite a bit on this post, i got to admit..And i am grinning insanly, as i am typing this, still thinking “gawd, just imagine if Joe did shot some bare bulb flashes.. and someone left it. at such a place..”)
I kinda wished you would have passed on comments regarding the toilet issue – I’m not impressed with crude humor and don’t come here to read personal comments that should be reserved for more personal company.
I may stand apart from your typical crowd but it isn’t a dignified item to read about on a public blog. I was referred to your blog by a friend and am trying to view you as a professional…
LOL Joe, you need to add the pic of Elise in front of the projector and the folks in the front row using the Bogen brochure as well (the Waltham seminar Mon the 8th)…that was ROFL!
Mark Griffith says
Great post Joe. I am so glad I ran across your blog and subscribed. Good stuff of laughing in this and great advice about the bad, the ugly and sometimes when your in the right place at the right time with your camera the good.
Have they tried using the catalog for toilet tissue? I found these type of glossy pages aren’t absorbent enough, like that subway map of Seoul when I discovered their stalls aren’t equipped with TP.
Mitch Wojnarowicz says
A STRIP of duct tape? My editor used to wrap it all the way around my head. Twice.
You can easily chew through a single strip before an editing session is over.
Mark K_NJ says
Great post. The inside looks you give us are very compelling and you always find a new way to present it. Really well done.
Love that Geo cover by the way. That photo, and the juxtaposion of Indian cultures, always sticks in my mind.
Tim Solley says
Now that’s frickin’ hilarious Joe. You should mat that photo, frame it, then ship it off to Toledo.
I always get giddy seeing a new post end up in my feed reader Joe. Thanks for all the insight into the big shot photo industry. I like the way you skim over all the typical BS and give us something we’re not getting from anyone else.
I’m a newspaper photographer, and I share your pain. Often, my photos are used as a toilet by birds in cages everywhere!
I’m glad to be in the club with you!
Jon Diener says
I’m really enjoying your blog posts, as well as your Kelby Training bits, and hopefully soon, your book “The Moment it… uh, Clicks.”
Let me just say that, as a native of the Toledo area, we’d be honored to have anything “filled with your shitty pictures.” Your honesty and humor are very refreshing in an industry that seems to be taking itself way too seriously lately. And of course, thank you for sharing your knowledge, insight, experience, and passion with the rest of us mere mortals – from Toledo or elsewhere.
David Cupp says
Thanks for your hilarious and insightful post. As solitary as all photography seems to be sometimes, it’s great to remember the wonderful people around us that push us to be the best we can possibly be.
Neal Sands says
Thank you for making my day, I’ve been self employed in the imaging industry for three years now after working for another for seven prior.
I love your blog and the personality that comes through it. You couldn’t be more right and I’m sure you don’t need me to say so. I particularly like your final thought of this post.
As said previously keep on keepin’ on, your an inspiration. Not just a talking head telling the rest of us how to achieve an image from a technical stand point.
The best part reading your blog is hearing from a real person! Thank You!
Neal in Orlando
Joe, you are truly inspiring! I was teary-eyed at your “Shooting for Major Magazines” class at PSW this last week … corny, I know, but I came out of it with more passion and drive than I have in a long while.
Oh, and I absolutely love your sense of humor too!!!
robert norman says
nothing like finding your work in the pooper—
Bob DeChiara says
Brilliant as always!
Great job in Waltham! You are looking skinny these days.
I would find more disturbing that they were more “happy” to see the gear than the beautiful Kazakh model ………. :s
As always a great reading! thanks for sharing your insights of the industry with us 🙂
Amen..I say Amen..Wholly Sh t Dats a good one..Thanks joe
Richard Cave says
I have shot over a thousand images on this assignment and I only like six of them. A couple of years ago I was on assignment and brought back 200 images for my picture editor, the disc went flying across the desk ” I only want one bloody picture!” A three week 10.000 mile trip condensed into one picture.
My raw files are under lock and key, and it would coost UPS a fortune to deliver to Toledo.
Laughed my butt cheeks off,
Dear Mr McNally,
This is one of the funniest and most inspiring posts I’ve read in this saturated world of blogged opinions!
Thanks so much.
“they’re being “kind to the earth” even
as they’re being…well….kind to themselves.”
Now that’s funny.
Enjoyed the post,
When i see your amazing work its dificult to think that you shot bad pictures
as i do. i know now where to send all my material.
just one thing more, can you tell me which is the p.o. box to Toledo ?
Carlton Wade says
I’ve been a silent follower for awhile now, but I had to comment on this one. Terrrific. I’m inspired by your work, sure, but it’s this kind of stuff that I carry along. I don’t know you or Chase Jarvis personally, but your kindness and willingness to help and inspire young(er) shooters like me is what will carry us forward into the uncertain future of photography as a business. I hope to meet you somewhere along the trail.
Just some guy in Texas,
Thanks for reminding me that this is supposed to be hard.
Jeryc Garcia says
Craig, I believe “tk” is journo-speak for (and you can correct me on this, Mr. McNally) “to come.”
wow! you did that national geographic cover? i swear i remember being in awe of that picture when it first ran.. 10 years ago i guess it is! so awesome.
quit smoking says
I do not usually comment on blogs but I had to stop in and say thank you for posting this, I absolutely agree and hopefully other people will understand your point.