I joshed a bit the other day about our precarious place in the tachycardiac economic universe, prompted by yet another edition of the ongoing black humor fest Bill D. and I have been engaged in now for, oh, about 20 years. Things are admittedly a bit terrifying of late, which in its own way is reassuring.
Hear me out. Engaging in anything creative pushes the meter anywhere from uncomfortable to risky to flat out screaming bejeesus anxiety attack status. Just does. Couple that with the uncertain (now there’s one way to put it) nature of being a shooter and trying to make a living at this, especially now, and you can see your way to terrifying real easy. But, when has this not been terrifying? So there you go. At least that hasn’t changed a whit, and immediately we’re back to reassuring. Stable, even.
Whew! Nothing like a big, fat juicy rationalization or 30 or 40 to get you through the day!
As the bhagwan says, the only constant is change, and that dude is definitely onto something.
I grew up shooting for mom and dad’s magazines. You know, National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek. Change has hit those books hard and they have come in for some rough sledding. LIFE of course, after giving Lazarus a run for his money, finally gave it up for good. When I was a staffer there, I would always note that it was appropriately titled, seeing as it would reincarnate endlessly. And, of course, “Death” didn’t test well.
Nat Geo is still kicking, and bless ’em, they’ve kept me a bit busy this year. I tell ya, though, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in the field and somebody said, “Oh yeah, my mom and dad used to get that. The attic was full of old issues.” That usually produces from me a strained smile that is more akin to a grimace than an expression of shared joy and reminiscence. Much more likely now, though, you get, “National Geographic, dude, cool! When’s this gonna be on?”
No, no, young person. This is for the printed page. It has no buttons or blinking lights. You don’t turn it on. I hear that from a teenager and my D3 feels like some parchment and a quill pen.
All this uncertainty is okay, though. I’ve been fired from almost every job I’ve ever had, so by now, I guess I’m comfortable with not knowing where the next assignment or check might be coming from. I was fired from my very first job in journalism in NY, at the NY Daily News. It was fun while it lasted. I’m still friends with some of the gang there, though the real classic old characters have long since shot their last holder.
My bud Johnny Roca, a terrific street smart shooter and all around NY original is still there, 35 years in. Quintessential ladies’ man who had a phone booth of an apartment in Tudor City with nothing in it but a circular bed and an entertainment system. The whole staff would live vicariously through John and his tales of leggy women in the windswept dunes of the Hamptons, where he would regularly seclude himself for much of the summer.
One year he had copped himself a good chunk of freelance work and bought a convertible Mercedes. He called me up. “Joe, Joe, you can’t believe it. I got women diving in the car with me, they’re diving in the car. It puts out a male scent, I swear to God.” He would tell tales of his exploits and a bunch of the photo guys’ eyes would glaze over in rapture. Of course it wasn’t that tough a crowd to impress, as many had, you know, a house in Massapequa, a battle axe for a wife and their groins had stopped working sometime during the Truman administration. Their idea of really cutting loose on a weekend was to pop open a brewski and fire up the weed wacker.
I don’t have 35 years in anywhere, having been fired from the News during the Pleistocene Era, and, from that point taken, well, a different road. Not so much a road, really, more of a cow path. But back then, I was bent on being a newspaper guy. Johnny and I would ban together as apprentices in the studio, waiting for a spot on the street to break open. We would pass the time by complaining to Al Pucci, the lab manager, about our schedule. Al was a lovely, decent man with one helluva stutter. (Think K-k-k-Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. “Otto tried to k-k-k-k-kiss me….”) It was one of those painfully wonderful moments in life that would occur when Bill Umstead, managing editor, crashing the night owl at 5:30 would scream over the newsroom intercom about where the hell was his page one, and poor Al, also on the blower, under pressure, on deadline, would attempt an answer.
The silver lining in this of course was that, if page one was not ready at that moment, Al’s crafting of a response would give the printers a bit of extra time to slosh the print through the fixer and slap it on the drum dryer.
The printers were a cool bunch. Union to the core, and utterly unflappable, seeing as one of the chemicals in regular employ back there in the dark, right next to the dektol and the hypo, was Johnny Walker Black. (Does wonders for a flat neg.) They had unique skills. Soon after the night owl went to bed, the presses would start to roll, and literally, the entire building would start shaking. At that point, getting a sharp print meant that the enlarger had to be oscillating at the same frequency as the print easel, and boy these guys had that down pat.
They spoke their mind, too. Bobby Hayes, master printer and ex-jar head, was hammered a great deal of the time, and come one newsroom Christmas party time, had a brisk exchange with Mike O’Neill, the exec editor. The News would give out Christmas bonuses every year, based on length of service, but it was ridiculous. Guys with 30 years in would get, like, 300 bucks. O’Neill, a glad hander who spoke like his mouth was full of marbles, was working the crowd, and had the occasion to wish Bobby Christmas tidings. Bobby was appreciative. He thanked Mike for his bonus, but added something along the lines of, “Usually, when I get fucked, I like to be lying down in a dark room.” O’Neill mumbled something like, “Sorry to hear you feel that way, Bobby,” and meandered off in search of some egg nog.
Anyway, back in the lab, Johnny and I would appeal to Al’s better instincts to make our skeds more regular and desirable and Al would simply say, “Y-y-y-y-you boys want a regular schedule? Get a job in a b-b-b-b-b-bank.”
Never did that, either, cause I suck at math. It was the freelance photo life for me. Until I got a staffer job at LIFE, of course. I got fired from that one, too. In the waning days, they brought in some dipstick of an efficiency expert to go around and see if corners could be cut. He came into my office and I fruitlessly tried to explain that photography couldn’t be metered on an efficiency scale, couldn’t be plotted or graphed and wages and hours and time spent didn’t necessarily add up to usable “product,” to borrow his term.
None of it washed, or even dented his numerically driven psyche. He tried to prove his point by singling out one of my pictures, and telling me, while jabbing his finger at it, that he just didn’t understand that photo.
I told him that was vastly reassuring. I was fired soon thereafter. Actually not. In Time Warner parlance, I was “riffed.” (Reduction in force.)
SI is still going strong, though not according to upper management who would have you believe that their poor magazine is the equivalent of the guy on the street with a tin cup and an eye patch. (They would try to convince you of this from their regular table at Elaine’s.) Steve Fine and Jimmy Colton, the bosses in photo, routinely do more and more with less and less, witness SI’s stellar photography outta Beijing.
Colton and I go way back. As kids together we were over in Poland for the first papal trip JP2 made to his homeland. Talk about doing more with less. Newsweek was always a distant second to Time in money and resources. As Jimmy used to say, “Time is a hospital and Newsweek’s a mash unit.”
I was designated as the courier to get Newsweek’s last batch of deadline Ektachrome back to NY. Sheesh, was I nervous, sitting in the bare bones waiting room of the then Communist Warsaw airport, clutching a bag of about 200 rolls representing the efforts of some 7 or 8 fellow photogs. I was routed outta Poland to Zurich, where I picked up Swiss Air, first class. The home office knew the trip had been hell, and sprang for a seat up front.
Hot damn! First class on Swiss Air! The flight attendants were super nice, constantly filling my plate with fancy foods, even though I’m sure they were mildly bemused by having someone whose face more likely belonged on the side of a milk carton than in one of their first class recliners. That stuff, by the way, doesn’t happen anymore. Tough enough to get a day rate, much less a first class ticket.
Called Jimmy at the beginning of the Beijing Olympics, and told him my ruse worked. He was like, “What?” I told him I had circulated a rumor on the internet of a major sporting event happening in China, and SI took it, hook, line and sinker and sent their entire staff out of the country, creating a wonderful window for us lonely freelancers. We had a good laugh, but I didn’t get a job out of it. Last day I worked for them was last November, when I put Shawn Johnson on a balance beam in an Iowa cornfield. One day job, which produced the lead double truck for their Year In Pix female athlete portfolio last December.
Didn’t like what ran.
Would have preferred this.
What I really would have preferred is for the clouds to hold off for a bit longer, but no. Slogging a 300 or so pound balance beam outta the Iowa mud was one of the aspects of photography I don’t believe they dwell on at say, Brooks or RIT.
It ain’t the way it used to be, but what is? There’s never been any guarantees, or forgiveness, or for the last 10 or more years, fairness, in this industry. But here’s the thing.
We are out there, in the air, in the world. We don’t go to a cubicle farm everyday and stair at dismaying numbers on a screen. We make pictures. At the end of the day, we create something potentially significant that did not exist at the beginning of the day. We go forward, despite the uncertainty. Because this is an act of love and passion, which defies reason and prudence.
And we make that occasional good frame, the one that sings, the one that lifts our hearts and the hearts of everyone who sees it. That well and truly is as good as it gets. More tk.
you’d be happy to know that our 10 month old is now a subscriber to National Geographic!!
Great stuff Joe. Love this blog!!!
Ally Brasko says
Don’t worry, I just asked my mom if she would suscribe to Nat Geo a couple of days ago and I’m a teen.(:
I really like your last two paragraphs, also.
Joe McNally says
way to go Bahram…..you’re raisin’ that kid right, as I knew you would! Hope you are well, and thanks for taking a look at the blog….Best, Joe
Joan Marc Carbo Arnau says
Yours is a great down to earth philosophy. You’ve already earned a seat in the human beings hall of fame. Keep on showing us your views of the world.
Dave Taylor says
Your blog is always so insightful, full of humor, and timely. I loved everything about this entry, but the last few paragraphs really hit home. I’ll save those words as a reminder for all that photography gives us, and our viewers. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m quoting your last 2 paragraphs on my blog. I only wish that I could have come up with something so eloquent, heart felt, and amazing. I always look forward to your more tk. Take care.
Your last two paragraphs are amazing. Unfortunately my life revolves around a cubicle farm by day (Occassional evening, weekend ect.) and part time photographer any other chance I get. So your words really hit home and give me lots of inspiration until I can let go of the THAT farm and do what I love to do. Keep inspiring us with visuals and with words.
PS: I like the one of Shawn Johnson that didn’t run as well.
Dan Lurie says
Great post, Joe. Most of us (myself included) don’t have the courage to chance it and make photography our full time gig, but its heartening to know that those at the top deal with the same basic issues we do.
Matt Radlinski says
Been a fan since the Nat Geo airplane shoot. You’ve got a way with words (not to mention pictures). This reads like a noir fiction in Esquire.
Thanks for the insight, and I’ll buy you a beer one of these days.
eheh, man you’re really inspiring!
reading your tales almost makes me feel the smell of developing chemicals 🙂
(which, by the way, i guess i first smelled when you people were actually using them in business… only difference is that i was in elementary school, it the early 80’s ;))
(oh, and you totally look like William H. Macy! ;))
Jon T says
What a magic post.
You got right to the nub of it, so thank you Joe, you made my day…
ed linn says
reading your post is a great way to start the day.
i really enjoy the stories your experiences and of the characters you have come in contact with.
great words of wisdom from Joe!
Jake C says
Joe, thank you.
Aaron S says
Thanks for a nother great post to remind those of us stuck in the cubicle farm that there is freedom out there waiting for us.
Joe, love the blog–was in one of your PPSOP classes–after the cubicle farm I’m trying photography and your words of wisdom from today will be taped to my white board for encouragement. Keep up the great work!
Perhaps I haven’t got the eye for it yet, but I think I prefer the image that ran. Says something more about the athlete.
great post today – always want more.
Mark K_NJ says
Brilliant post, as usual. But…
…of really cutting loose on a weekend was to pop open a brewski and fire up the weed wacker.
Sounds pretty much like my weekends now, so I’d change that “was” to “is”. Hey a 17-month old will do that.
We don’t go to a cubicle farm everyday and stair at dismaying numbers on a screen. We make pictures..
*sigh* Unfortunately, some of us DO go to a cubicle farm – not an Iowa farm – every day and then hope to snap some frames as time and location permits. And we read great blogs like this, hoping to file away a new tibit of information that will make us better photographers.
Speaking of brewski’s…try the “Rowhouse Red” from Philadelphia Brewing Co. Very tasty! 🙂
Tim Solley says
You know, when I was a kid, my grandparents got me a subscription to NatGeo every year for years. I of course looked at the photos, ignored the text, and kept the maps to put on my walls.
Now I’m a dad of 29 with a two year old. I wait all month for that yellow border to show up in my mailbox, and when it does, I plop down excitedly on the couch with my son and we look through all the awesome photography. This month was a special treat as I yelled to my wife “Hey! Here’s the neanderthal cover shot that Joe McNally took! Woohoo!”.
My son really likes looking at all the photos in the magazine. He doesn’t watch TV, so I couldn’t tell you if he would like the NG channel. But you’d better believe he’ll grow up appreciating the magazine and all the hard work you photogs and writers put in to make it the finest magazine around.
And he’ll have a subscription every year, for years. And so will his kids.
Thanks for always dishing out the delicious nuggets Joe.
Mag Soszka says
Terrific blog Joe! Getting fired is sometimes a good thing, it allows you to re-think your career, your choices, and maybe thrive for something so much better. Unfortunately I’ve been stuck in a cubical farm for a very long time. The only thing that keeps me from going insane (especially in this wonderful market) is photography. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t choose that career path. Thankfully for the wonderful photographers blogs, magazines, and so forth I get to be apart of it. Photography is such a beautiful life.
Keep the blogs going so my sanity will remain at a semi-normal level 😉
Ps., I love the image of Poland! it’s where I grew up and I remember holding signs that said “solidarnosc (peace)” in the mid 80’s.
Robert B says
Joe, I could read your stories for hours. I look forward to each new post on your blog. Not only do you provide creative inspiration but human inspiration as well. I was having a really crappy day feeling sorry for myself. Not anymore. Thanks !
Ryan McBride says
Sitting in the backseat can be tough, but photographers do it best… some great words here Joe. May the freelance gods bless you more assignments
Love The Moment it Clicks. Love these sorts of stories. Love the way you present them.
I want the full-on Joe McNally autobiography. Don’t make me get Kelby on your ass.
Johnny Yuma says
If your camera was used for nothing more then a teaching prop I think you would still do OK for yourself.
A really good read, from a thoughtful man: thank you, Joe.
Jeff Ambrose says
Thanks Joe, its good to know there are still down to earth sane people out there.
What an inspiration. You make me want to leave this air-conditioned nightmare and wade through some reeking, cornfield mud with my camera in tow. Unfortunately my skill levels are lacking at this stage in my photography career, but maybe one day… I’m half-way through The Moment it Clicks – thanks Joe, what an awesome book.
amazing post, Joe, truly beautiful.
Thank you so much
Joe, one of the photos of Shawn Johnson has made an appearance on the photoshop disasters blog.
Elizabeth Gower says
I subscribe to NatGeo, my kids love it too, and my grandchildren subscribe to NatGeo for kids!
Joe, you are the reason I get yelled at by my wife every evening. “If your not sorting, proofing, or emailing shoots, you have no reason to be on that damn machine!”, my wife of 17 glorious years. I would say, I need my daily punch in the arm by someone who understands me. Joe, thank you. You have made it so much easier not to put all this camera shit up on ebay, because you go through the same perils us little guys go through, but I haven’t been fired from every job, maybe every other one. Looking forward to my next shot in the arm or kick in the pants. Pixs are awesome as usual, I’m stealing your ideas.
Robert Lee says
Great entry Joe. It comes at a very appropriate point in time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you!
Is there a chance the photo of Shawn Johnson you gave SI is not the one they ran?
Your SI photo is making the rounds online. boingboing.net has it under “Creepy fingers” here: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/09/23/creepy-fingers-in-sp.html
Bill Rogers says
Joe, love “The Moment,” love your blog. Y’know, for years I have nursed a pet theory that “fotographerz kant spel,” but then along came DH and JM who, it seemed, could. Spell, that is.
But now the “spell” is broken – “stair” at a screen, indeed. Oops.
Travis Jon Allison says
Somebody has posting yet another version of the Shawn Johnson picture – with a creepy hand coming out of the corn.
I assume it’s whomever is holding the beam steady.
on BoingBoing: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/09/23/creepy-fingers-in-sp.html
this is your best blog so far, joe.
however, no industry has guarantees or fairness. even for us cubicle farmers of the semicon industry, everyone is liable to restructuring and the ups and downs of the industry anytime. from our point of view, your job is heaven. because it’s heaven when we get to go out on a photo tour and capture that piece of heart-flutterers in the midst. aftewards, its going back to the daily grind.
only people who are involve in the arts or sports can proudly say they love their jobs.
thanks for sharing a great post! this is a keeper.
Joe, thanks for sharing pieces of you and your story. I look forward to you posts and I’d really like to meet you someday.
Thanks for creating something and sharing it with the world.
David Hobby says
Love the old newspaper posts. Laughed my ass off.
When I first started out, (Leesburg (FL) Commercial) the press was in our building and the whole place reeked of ink and cigar. I still love than smell.
By the time I left the BaltSun the newsroom had the smell of fear…
You are truly one of my major sources of inspiration for me becoming and “being” a photographer. Great stuff on this recent post.
Did I mention that I posted a very unbiased and unabashed plug about you on “my” blog . . . LOL
I love this blog….and that I am actually reading Joe McNally history…and that I have figured out “where I live”. Thanks for writing it. I love this blog.
Insightful and nostalgic. You’re at ease with both images and words. That is inspiring for starters like us, who are dabbling in both. It’s such a beautiful piece to read.
Inspire us more.
Toni C says
That last paragraph was incredible. Perfectly said. I may have to quote you on that and post on my blog. Credit given to you of course.
I like your blog a lot, and I think your pictures are great. But what impresses me the most is that even after being an established and respected photographer, you didn’t forget where you came from. It’s a qualitiy not many people have nowadys.
And thanks for sharing ….. 🙂
I have to agree, your last two paragraph sums up why I love photography. It goes so well with the image of you standing spent in the corn field. I hope you don’t mind I added the text to the image and posted it on my blog.
Shutter Bitch says
Makes me wish my job was photography and my hobby was accounting and not the reality that is an accounting job with a photography passion. Nice post, Joe. Really puts it into perspective.
P.S. I liked the second Shawn Johnson photo as well.
Chris Keels says
great blog! I just want you know my two sons
of 3 and 5 flipped, paused and read through the latest
National Geographic. The Neanderthal article
was of particular interest, (lots of bones & spears) and is was with great enjoyment I smiled to myself saying yea this guy is doing good work.
I look forward to seeing you in Santa Fe!
Will Foster says
“Nothing remains without change!”
Bruce Taylor says
Love the blog. I really enjoy the humility and the self deprecating humor. The sweat or rain soaked Joe photo is priceless. Don’t know how many times, as a working photog, I have been sweat or rain soaked to drowned rat appearance status. Ten years ago I ate the bullet and left my first love photojournalism world to work as a photographer/imaging expert in a crime lab. Steady work but I miss PJ every day.
Amazing amazing last paragraphs!! keep that in mind forever
I´m already reading this from a cubicle and your work (action and results) is one of the main things that helps to win my match of heart vs reason and get to do my best efforts to become a photog.
Greatings from Spain, many may have told you but make notice I´m another person who you have inspired and teached a lot.
thanks for all Joe, best wishes 4 U.
Thanks Joe. For those of us who are trying to make it full-time as a photographer right now, it’s definitely not easy (to say the least).
Inspiring, as always. You’re good with words; you should write a book.
Oops, you did… I’m jsut reading it… 8¬)
Zeke Smith says
Another hilarious take on SI’s slight error failing to photoshop out the hand holding the beam support:
Enjoy your work Joe. Thanks for all you do.
Hope you’ll have a minute to comment on Paul Newman’s death.
Mark Griffith says
You know Joe, the writing is as good as the photos. 🙂 The salt of the earth flavor comes through your writing. Your photos are the ones that sing. I especially love the one of the nun in Poland.
Thank you so much for writing this. At first, I wasn’t sure why I was reading it, other than the fact that it’s a story, a melange of anecdotes, from someone with different experience from me that might give me some insight or entertainment. That, and also that I’m bored at work and sometimes not getting any work done is the most productive thing I can do.
However, those last two paragraphs really opened me up to something that had been hiding in the ether behind my eyes that had been straining to get out for a while now. Recently I’ve been trying to devote more time to photography and every day I’ve been reading blogs and tutorials and looking through hundreds of photos… mostly just being entertained but every once in a while catching a nostalgic whiff of this thing I once knew called Inspiration.
It’s something I’ve been unconsciously searching for in my somnambulant daily cycle, but now I’m more aware of it. Now I can seek it more proactively, with a better sense of direction… as if I’d been searching for an oasis and suddenly someone handed me a divining rod.
What really drove it home for me was the reference to the cubicle farm from which I read your article. It’s exactly the relentless unrewarding putrid grey push for productivity that, in a sense, inspires me to do something creative and seek inspiration, and maybe even a paycheck, elsewhere.
The last two paragraphs are inspirational. Thanks again for, yet another, superb post.
Boy… those numbers at the top of this page actually look pretty good today! Heh.
Great blog, priceless instruction, witty writing and inspiring work. Thanks for all of it. Come to think of it, I’ve acknowledged you here: http://web.mac.com/mojojoejoe/iWeb/Site/Blog/911752BC-40A4-4E6E-912C-72FC50A8C504.html
I figured with your sense of humor, you’d appreciate it (even if the punchline is an old shot that almost everyone’s seen.) Would’ve emailed it instead, but didn’t know where to send it.
I have just started a subscription with Nat Geo, have bought it of and on for years, the photography is always great. So thought I would subscribe. I work in print media, and although it’s struggling, I don’t think it will ever die, there’s nothing quite like sitting with a coffee on a Sunday afternoon and reading a good book or magazine. The internet, for me anyway, will never replace that.
Keep up the good work Mr McNally, I bought your book The Moment it Clicks, and I can honestly say It’s the first photography book I’ve read right through, great, inspiring stuff. Made me change the way I look at my pictures, it’s just a hobby for me but brings me a great deal pleasure.
Don Risi says
Didn’t like the shot they chose? Sigh.
Been there, but it certainly wasn’t for SI. Oh, that it were. There are those if us in this world who would die for the chance to say, “Yeah, I had a double truck in last week’s Sports Illustrated, but I really wish they’d run this one instead . . . ”
As always, great stuff. Even your “not first choice.”
Jay T. says
You’re an inspiration, Joe. Like the others before me, your words (yes, especially the last couple of paragraphs) also hit home for me. Today, I really needed to hear the things you said – I haven’t picked up my cameras for some time now (due to a lack of deisre; due to a lack of inspiration) but given that it is very early in the morning, I think I will put aside all of my previous plans for today, pick up my gear, get in my car and spend the day out in the streets taking photos.
Here’s to hoping they turn out as good as yours!
Stair Lift Info says
I alike the way you put it. tks for the info…
Cole Powell says
sometimes i also have anxiety attacks and when it happens, i just breathe slowly and deeply to help me relax..”*
Alex Pletcher says
Thanks Joe, for this post, just been reading old blog entries because I can’t get enough. I’m graduating highschool this year with hopes of becoming a professional photographer. I keep feeling discouraged because it’s not a completely solid job but your posts influence me a lot to keep shooting and to keep trying. Thanks!
Zoe Murphy says
Relaxation techniques and meditation can help a lot during Anxiety Attacks. .”.
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I have been to your site several times now, and this time I am adding it to my bookmarks 🙂 Your pages are always relevant, unlike the same-old stuff on other sites (which are coming off my bookmarks!) Keep it up!
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