Being in the Communication Arts yearly has always been kinda cool, and we’re selected again this year, after a pretty long hiatus. Didn’t bother submitting much in the last few years, as the kind of magazine assignments that generated that kind of play for us as a studio don’t exactly drop from trees anymore. But this year, we had a pretty visual story, on telescopes, for National Geographic, so we zapped in our entry. The CA yearly anthology is a grouping of some of the best visuals of the year, and lots of industry folks view it as a good guide to who’s doing what.
Contests, awards–they’re funny things. As I’ve always told young photogs, winning a contest doesn’t mean anything on a day to day basis, really. No magazine I’ve ever placed for has come back to me and said, here’s more dough for your next job ’cause you done so good. Given the vagaries of the magazine industry, the opposite is more likely to be true. But what they can occasionally do is make getting the next job easier. Or make the process of wringing money from an institution to fund a project slightly less arduous. That’s about it.
Not that it’s not cool to place, or sake’s alive, even win. It’s a kick in the pants in a good way, and it can take you out of the doldrums of the assignment grind. I’ve always been fond of a couple yearly photo gatherings, most notably the World Press Competition, held in Amsterdam every spring. It’s a bit heady to enter, ’cause you know you’ve just jumped into the pool with the world’s best photojournalists, and your work will be measured by an unforgiving and unyielding yardstick. I’ve taken a few spots there over time, once winning a first place for portrait, for the shot below, of sprinter Gail Devers, then the fastest woman in the world.
Was it the best portrait taken in the world that year? Dunno, and, quite frankly, I doubt it. Here’s how it came about. Mr. Genius went to LA to photograph her legs. Pretty logical, as that was the engine of her fame. Shot this, which I was happy with.
But, you know, I always advocate asking the question. That uncomfortable, exasperating photog question that just about spins your subject over the top. As we were leaving, literally packed up, I gulped and asked Gail if there was anything else she could show me that I was missing. (Reason for the gulping was that Gail, like many sprinters, was a very forceful personality. Sprinters are often very confident, brash, in your face kinds of folks. I’ve often thought their personality reflects their endeavor, which is of course a complete, explosive, all out burst of energy in a very short time.)
“So, anything else instrumental in your success?” I inquired. She shrugged and said, “Well, I’m pretty strong.” And then popped a bicep that would make Ahhnold jealous. Throw in the fingernails, and we had the makings of a picture. The finger curl pic was shot in less than ten minutes, available light, with a big foam core white board being the only assist I offered the cloudy LA daylight. No photographic virtuosity, just some quick snapping. And a willingness to venture the potentially annoying question at the end of the day.
The other big dog on the contest block is the Pictures of the Year competition, held every year at the University of Missouri. The above pic won a first place, for magazine illustration, which was cool. This of course was a construct, done with light and mirrors, to honor the perennial all star shortstop, Ozzie Smith. As they said, he was baseball’s Wizard of Oz who looked like he was playing shortstop from 5 different spots at once, such was his range. My solution to show this was mirrors, which spawned a whole generation of mirror pics in Sports Illustrated. Tough shot to do. Mirrors, unsurprisingly, are heavy, fragile and (who’da thunk it!) highly reflective. Just a bear to work with.
But it worked. The trick of the pic, if you will, is that Ozzie himself is standing right next to me at camera while I’m shooting this. Just had to locate the mirrors specifically to his angle and light it well. Sports Illustrated liked the photo, running a different version, one with Ozzie actually in the frame with his reflections, on the contents page.
But, to fit it onto the contents page, the biggest, most important reflection (created by the mirror closest to camera) of Ozzie had to be cropped out. Which pretty much punctures the picture. Sigh. These things happen. It ain’t my magazine.
This one won another first at Pictures of the Year, which came from a boomed F4 with an SB 24, 25 or 26 on it, fired by radio. The camera was clamped to the end of a c-stand, which I had resting on my shoulder, and hash marked right where I needed to run it out to. Which I had to do repeatedly, in the days of shooting film. Pull it in. Reload. Run it back out. Yikes. The real prize here is that we landed safely.
Contests. They’re a nice pat on the head. But be careful about all the backslapping and hand wringing that goes along with them. I won the first Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Journalistic Impact for a story called The Panorama of War. A couple of pictures from the story are below, shot in Rwanda, post genocide. There was an awards dinner, which is typical of these things, and prizes, a check, and all sorts of stuff. It was a worthwhile evening, during which numerous photogs received honors, and many speeches were made. Only thing was for me, as I stood at the podium to accept my award on behalf of LIFE, I was pretty much the only person in the room who knew I had been fired by LIFE just the previous week. I was their only staff shooter at the time, and in what has become a yearly rite of passing in print journalism, I was let go, along with numerous of my colleagues. At Time Warner, it wasn’t called being fired. The process was referred to as “reduction in force,” or “RIF.” So I didn’t get fired, I got riffed.
So be it. Happens, right? I remember being up on stage, smiling through the irony. Thing about being a freelancer, as podunk as it is, you keep moving. You have a camera, and an eye, and there will be someone else to shoot for. You stay in business. You keep shooting. What the hell else you gonna do? Lord knows I’m not going to fire myself. And, I don’t regret a minute of my time at LIFE, and I’m still involved with the name in a big way. (Some photo historian eventually might note that I am the last staff photographer at LIFE, thereby making me responsible for the death of photojournalism.)
It’s all cool. Things change. Institutions come and go. Film gives way to pixels. Awards sit on shelves, and gather dust. We can’t. More tk….
Jeremy Sale says
Awesome post. This just covers so many aspects of what people think (and don’t think) is important in photography.
If only you could teach a humility workshop, Joe!
Great post as always Joe. You have such a way with words that sometimes I have to remind myself that you are a photographer first.
Joe, I think what I love most about your posts (and I noticed this, too, when I read The Hot Shoe Diaries) is your candor and honesty when it comes to what life is really like. I think it really brings out your personality and is what makes me interested in reading your stuff. The pics and the techniques are just gravy.
Patrick Delany says
Thanks for the post, very inspiring both artistically and careerwise. Where I work, the past reduction in workforce due to the economy was called “right sizing”. Having been “right sized” in the distant past myself, I’m sure those no longer with us felt it wasn’t “right”… But, the strong ones tough it out, move on, and usually prosper. Glad you did the same!
Rob Byron says
“…be careful about all the backslapping and hand wringing that goes along with them.” But at the same time, don’t forget to actually do a little backslapping and hand wringing.
Another great article Joe. Oh, and way to go on that death of journalism thing. We are all so proud.
John Leonard says
Death of photojournalism….hmm…..maybe, but you shot the first full digital story for Nat Geo right? So one dies, one is born. It’s a circle of life thing or phoenix from the ashes, yadda, yadda. Either way I’m glad you still shoot. Your a big insperation to me and a lot of other folks for a lot of reasons.
Great, great post!
Well said Sir!.
My old man use to say, beware of ego, it will make you feel good but will not last neither will bring money to your checkbook.
And contest if not seen in the right perspective can strongly feed ego.
Bob DeChiara says
I am way too jealous of Gail…her biceps are bigger than mine…and I just love the photo of Ozzie.
Joe your creativity is outstanding and inspiring!!!! And your writing is a joy to read!
I was 15 when I saw Gail Devers portrait – I belive it was 1997 in Poland at Word Press Photo. At that time I dind’t realise I will remember this image forever… I didn’t have a clue who Joe McNally was – to be honest, I probably didn’t knew who Gail Devers was either…
So “Was it the best portrait taken in the world that year?Dunno, and, quite frankly, I doubt it.”
Well I think it was the most memorable one. I didn’t have any interest in photography at that time (well I had some – after all I was there. Looking back I think it was one of those images that pushed me unwittingly towards photography.
Thank you Joe, for sharing your honesty.
Stephen Milano says
another outstanding post–have to agree with Andrew’s earlier comment–the images and techniques are gravy. The insights/observations are always spot on–and–in a world of “short posts” your in depth discussions of a subject are amazing given how busy you stay. thanks for taking the time to share with us mere mortals.
Another great post. I noticed you often end posts with more tk… What does tk stand for?
awesome post, joe. *looks up at my wall of college photojournalism awards*
I emailed a photo to a contest way back ago, got a reply next day I had won..send 119.95 for a copy of there book which I would be featured and honored, next day sent in another photo under a diff, name and e-mail..got same message back.. didn’t bite either time..beware..there are a bunch of scams out there.
Johannes S says
Good post today. True.
Abhijit Bhatlekar says
Such a delighful read. Thanks for posting.
Another good post full of great shots – thank you!
Greg Brave says
Thank you Joe for the great article. I remember the photo of Ozzie Smith from your book “The Moment it Clicks”, which is also great by the way! The last photo, of the girl standing alone, is such a perfect mix of photojournalism with art photography.
Inspired me for at least a week!
Tim Skipper says
The thing I appreciate about you and your blog, books, and videos is your open honesty. You are without a doubt one of the most powerful shooters in the world yet you carry a sense of humility and openness about your short comings and failures.
Its why I always come back for more.
Isn’t that true? I won a prize with a portrait that was publiched on the contents page … Awards are nice but they don’t buy your food. Friend o’mine got fired right after she won her prize for best local writer of the year. Stuff happens. By the way: I am glad to be freelancing, now.
Thanks for sharing – I always enjoy reading your posts.
Howard Haby says
Another great blog entry. I didn’t know you made the Gail Devers portrait (shame on me!)! Regardless, excellent portrait of course, very powerful.
I was thinking this morning that you, out of all the photographers I follow, definitely write the best blog. Hands down. This entry just supports my opinion. They are always insightful, well written, and often hilarious. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories with us. And for sharing your years of experience with us. It’s invaluable. After reading your blog, I always gain a little insight and walk away with something new to think about. And while daydreaming isn’t exactly encouraged when you’re at your “day job”, it certainly helps me get through the day.
Alice Mullen Drake says
Photo-Journalisn is the only form of Journalism that is still alive. It is the only form of Journalism that can be quickly verified by independent sources. You haven’t killed it. You are nursing its rebirth.
William Chinn says
Honestly, you are the only photographer I follow whose stories are just as good as his photos. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you have to work like the proverbial dog, sometimes the planning is horrendous, most of the times all of the above. While I could listen to the stories behind the pictures all day, I wonder what stories you have when there weren’t any pictures? Don’t mention the Kelby trip to Spain.
I see a trend is emerging. I had a couple of goes at entering a big competition. Came second both times. I won on the third attempt only to be fired between winning and the awards presentation. They sent the art director to collect it instead.
Best stay away from competitions!
Eric Muetterties says
Great post again. You always inspire me to move forward with what I love to do. Your sharing and teaching has improved my photography immensely.You are like a best friend, that I don’t know personally â˜º
Mathieu Wauters says
Fire yourself? I’m sure you meant a reduction in force. Great post!
Marvin Pido says
“It’s all cool. Things change. Institutions come and go. Film gives way to pixels. Awards sit on shelves, and gather dust. We can’t. More tk….”
That last line hits me like a ton of bricks, Joe. I’m currently in what I personally called “artistic/creative rut”. There are things I don’t have control over (always wanted that 2.8 lens; if only I have a light rig that my friends have) that make me like this nowadays, therefore making my gear collect dust in my closet. That goes without saying that I’m collecting dust as well. I always thought if I have this or that I’d be better. I should have known better! Thanks for this article. I hope to rekindle my purpose of investing my time, money and energy on this.
Malinda Hartong says
Joe, thanks for the last several paragraphs. I sure needed that this morning. SSDD. Now I’m off to Carpe Diem! Cheers to the next gig.