Conversation at the speed of light - An interview with Joe McNally | Profoto (US)

Conversation at the speed of light - An interview with Joe McNally

05 July, 2022

Written by: Olle Nordell

Most celebrated photographers, who at one point in their careers managed to break away from the masses to make a name for themselves, have done so in a specific genre. Fashion, portraiture, landscape, music, sports. Very few have bridged the gap between photojournalism and advertising, which makes McNally anything but your average Joe. Nearing his 70th birthday, he’s more active than ever - constantly roaming the world on demanding missions. Still relied upon for transforming technical nightmares into stunning photographs. Because whether it’s ambient or flash - at the end of the day he emerges from the rubble with the shot. Every time. We got a hold of Joe McNally one early LA morning, and had a quick chat about light, the past and the present.

What is the biggest difference between Joe 2022, and Joe 2002?

Twenty years ago, digital started to sweep the industry, and I transformed to a digital photographer. I was smack in the middle of a technical shift, not only in terms of cameras, but also about how we work and the role of media. Back then, I was constantly trying to find work and establishing a game plan. But also, in pre-digital times, the work was in print and stayed on the newsstand for a month and people talked about it. Today, it’s the opposite – your pictures are on Instagram and people deal with them in a matter of seconds. But there’s an uptick in channels where you can publish yourself. In 2002, you needed approval or an assignment from an editor. Today I decide myself. I am much happier today.  

Do you remember the most important a-ha moment of your career?

It’s not really something that happened just one time. For me, it’s rather been a string of those moments. I’ve always developed and expanded through the people I’ve had the chance to photograph. Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein. Brilliant individuals that left a mark on me. As a photographer I am a witness of excellence, and the profession is really ”a license to steal experience,” as Jay Maisel has famously said. Each of these encounters has taught me something, each with their own a-ha moment that I carry with me. In layers.

Any advice for an aspiring amateur playing with the idea of going pro?

First of all, sort out what is important to witness. For that to happen, you have to be aware of the world, read a lot, and stay respondent to things. Photography is about having a conversation with somebody, and for that to happen, it needs to be interesting. And to be interesting, it must somehow be disruptive, break a convention or two. Show a new perspective, a truth I didn’t know or fully understand. But maybe most important, find something that is so beautiful, you can’t help photographing it. For me, that is dance.

Who are you inspired by today?

Right now, all the photographers in Ukraine. I think what they are doing is incredibly important, and I’m personally inspired by Carol Guzy and Daniel Berehulak. Their images are vital in showing what’s going on, and knowing that photography has the ability to change the course of history - any photographer who decides to venture into these war zones to relay the truth to us, is performing an impressive task for humanity.

Is an image ever ’done’? How do you know when you ’have it’?

Well, there’s always the budget. Funds are rarely limitless, and money ultimately dictates how visually ambitious you can be. But apart from that, it’s a skill - a gut feeling. Confidence is important, which comes with understanding light, knowing the gear, and developing the ability to always pull it off. That confidence helps you decide when the image is done. You just know.

Describe light

Light is the language of photography. We as humans look for it, it’s how we are wired. The eye goes to bright areas. So how the light plays in a photo is an incredibly important aspect of that photo. Always remember, the very word ”photograph” derives from the original Greek, which literally means "writing with light". Bad lighting, or a poor understanding of light - can make anyone ugly. You need to develop a feel for it, how to treat each new scene, each face. It’s everything.

Our short moment is up, Joe speeds off for a workshop, and I can hear the anticipation in his voice as we say our goodbyes. He’d much rather be hitting the streets, camera in hand - than spending time on video interviews with me. McNally is a working man, and even though he is great at putting words to this hard craft – he lives for actually taking photographs. Which is probably why he is who he is.

Written by: Olle Nordell