Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning photographer whose prolific career includes assignments in nearly 70 countries. McNally is known worldwide as not only one of the top, technically excellent photographers of his generation, but his charming demeanor, confidence, and humor make him a sought-after choice from CEOs to celebrities to commercial and magazine clients alike.
He is among the rare breed of photographer who has bridged the world between photojournalism and advertising, amassing an impressive commercial and advertising client list including FedEx, Sony, ESPN, Adidas, Land's End, General Electric, Epson, MetLife, USAA, New York Stock Exchange, Lehman Brothers, PNC Bank, and the Beijing Cultural Commission. McNally is equally comfortable climbing buildings or lighting a telescope to capturing quiet, sensitive subject matter with confidence in medical surroundings. He has shot numerous cover stories and highly complex features for National Geographic, LIFE, and Sports Illustrated, where his research skills and unmatched preparedness were highly valued.
Allan Kliger: Hello, Joe. Great to have an interview with you about your fabulous work and specifically your work on photographing athletes. So, please feel free to mention the subject you would most want to be asked and seen written up in a magazine with a worldwide distribution. Let's start with your Athletes series featured in this article.
Joe McNally: Well, I have photographed sports, you know, off and on, certainly throughout my whole career. I actually had a contract with Sports Illustrated; I think my first job for them was 1983 or '84.
A. K.: How did you first get a job with them? How did they first learn about you?
J. McNally: They approached me because I had started to shoot for what used to be the Time Inc group of magazines, a cluster of very famous titles and powerful magazines. I was producing covers for a variety of magazines in the early '80s in New York, and I guess I came to the attention of Sports Illustrated. The very first job I ever shot for them was Bo Jackson – he was a legendary athlete, a Heisman Trophy winner when he was at Auburn University. And that went extremely well.
A. K.: How did you approach that first shoot? And did you approach it differently than the way you would approach it now?
J. McNally: good question… I don't think the process of preparing yourself has changed all that much. I certainly do a lot of complicated production work now, and that's kind of a different type of a thing, but for this, I knew I was going to go down. He was a college kid. I did all the reading I could about him at that time, which was, you know, sort of sizable but not overwhelming. He was just- and remains to this day the best athlete I've ever seen in the company of.
A. K.: Were the concepts all yours, or did you have a team helping you come up with the ideas for composition and for the storylines? How did that work out?
J. McNally: Absolutely, not. No. It was all out in the field with an assistant and me. That was the beauty of editorial work. They would say, We think you're right for this; go down and get some good pictures. See you on, you know, next Tuesday.
And, so, it was very open-ended. I mean, that was the nature of editorial work. You could infuse it with your own personality, skills, direction. It was pretty unusual that the magazine's art director would get involved and say, I want to see this. That would be a really unusual sort of situation. If it had been a cover, I probably would have heard from the art director and then spoken by the overall editor of the piece, etc.
But, in this instance, it was a big story, but it wasn't the cover story, so, you know, they kind of wound you up and let you go.
A. K.: Right. And, were you big into the speed lights at the time for your shooting?
J. McNally: No, I didn't use Speedlights on this at all. I used larger flash, probably Norman 200B back in the day.
A. K.: I'm now looking at what you wrote about those images with your blog back in 2012. And the images are beautiful. I mean, very, very natural, which I guess is the whole idea of it, right?
J. McNally: Yes, I still, to this day, am very fond of the portrait I made of him with chewing a straw, and there's an orange tiger behind him. Just a big wall painting in a garage. It was a filling station on the main drag of Auburn, and I saw that as a graphic, and I went to the gas station guy and said, Hey, you know, could I put up a light here and photograph Bo Jackson? He said, Sure, why not.
A. K.: Now, obviously, you love sports. You probably loved them, I guess, as a kid, and so the opportunity to do this type of an editorial must have made you grin from ear to ear.
J. McNally: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I've been involved in sports and played some sports in high school, but I was always kind of a wannabe. I was never going to be an athlete or a scholarship athlete to college or anything like that, so I enjoyed the connection to sports that photography gave me, sure.
A. K.: And where did it go after this? What was the next step?
J. McNally: Actually, that Sports Illustrated issue proved to be very successful, so they asked me to do probably one of the best, most enjoyable stories I think I ever was assigned to. They gave me basically three weeks to go shoot a story on Indiana high school basketball. And it was based on the miracle of Milan. A small school won the Indiana state high school championship many years ago, which also formed the basis for the movie Hoosiers that had Gene Hackman starring in it.
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