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Welcome Adorama!

Jul 8

In Thoughts at 12:41pm

Long blog. Apologies. This is a history that doesn’t sum up in a couple of grafs. What I am celebrating here is the resiliency of the photo community, and the welcome partnership of Adorama Camera here in NY. They have stepped up to help me shepherd a collection of pictures stemming from the events of 9/11, and we will collaborate via this blog, education and lectures. Please read on…..

Back in 2001, things weren’t great in the photo biz, I tell ya. It was heavy sledding, trying to get work, staying afloat, keeping the studio running. Little did I know that just around the corner the jalopy known as McNally Photography, a sleek machine with a couple of flats, transmission trouble and a top end of oh, about 22mph, was going to get bulldozed by this event called 9/11, which changed all of our lives, forever. Everything after that day became, “the new normal,” a phrase that grew out of just how thoroughly, absolutely, and irretrievably everything was now different.

Like many NY shooters, I had a love affair with those towers, those twin exclamation points at the end of Manhattan. They were in lots of my pix over the years.

In a moment of youthful exuberance, I actually climbed the antenna on the North Tower.

Then they were gone, replaced by this giant dust cloud of destruction that floated out and settled on all of our shoulders, hearts, minds and spirits. “What to do now?” was the oft repeated question. How to deal with the sadness, the rage, the confusion, the uncertainty? How to make a contribution? On some level, no matter how miniscule?

I’m a photographer. Pictures are what I have to offer. (It’s the only thing I really know how to do.) But I did not go to the streets, like so many of my colleagues. Quite a number of them were already at it, in heroic fashion. I could add very little to what they were doing. I stayed at home, hung with the kids a bit, and stewed. First time out with a camera after the day was to shoot Mike Piazza, then the Mets catcher. SI was doing a piece on how athletes played a role in lifting our hearts and minds.

In 2000, I was assigned to shoot pictures for a very small story (which was never published) on a unique photographic instrument called Moby C, which at the time lived on the lower East Side of NY. Moby after the whale, not the musician. (His birthday is Sept. 11th, l965, by the way. Sept. 11th is also my dad’s birthday, back in 1912.) This camera is the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera, invented at the behest of Dr. Land himself. It is the size of a one car garage. Its lens came from a U2 spy plane, according to legend. At f/45, you have about an inch of depth of field. You cannot focus the lens–you have to focus your subject by moving them back and forth in tiny increments. There is no shutter, you have to work camera obscura at the moment of exposure. I used about 25,000 watt seconds of strobe, mostly run through a 12×12 silk. The strobe system was wired to a Mamiya RZ 6×7 camera, bore sighted under the Polaroid lens. We would pose the subject, then wait for the interior workings of the Polaroid to spool up (there are two technicians inside the camera when you shoot, and they have to prepare things, like switch on a Black and Decker wet dry vac to suck the Polaroid film to the giant backplate of the camera). Then I would go dark in the studio, pull the cap of the Polaroid lens, fire the Mamiya and thus render an instantaneous dupe, one a huge positive, and the other a 6×7 transparency.

Huge indeed. What results after the exposure is a life sized image, 40″x 80″. You lay it out on the floor of the camera, wait 90 seconds (it’s the same Polaroid paper that comes in your over the counter cameras) and then peel the chemical backing off. There you have it.

I had convinced the elegant and easy going Jennifer Ringer, a principal with the NYC Ballet, to come and work with me during this first, experimental day with the camera. We made some nice, big pictures of her. (I was chuckling inside during this shoot, harking back to our old philosophy at LIFE magazine: “If ya can’t make ‘em good, make ‘em big and in color!”)

Made seven successful images that day, which is a lot of production for this behemoth of a camera, and found I had a bit of an affinity for working it. (Try anything once, right? Just have faith and remember the Lord looks after a fool.)

Hmmm. Things stick with you, right? A week after 9/11, I sent an email to the only guy I knew who had a bunch of cash and would give me a quick decision; the editorial director of Time Warner, John Huey. John’s basically an old Southern newspaper man who kind of looks at you sideways, lets you babble, and then tells you what he thinks. He’s smart as a whip, quick off the mark, and does not suffer fools or photographers gladly.

I sent him the email on a Thursday night. He gave me money for the project Monday morning. The pressure was on. He was taking a huge gamble with his company’s dough, $100,000, to be direct about it. He looked me in the eye and drawled, “Joe, you spend $20,000 and get me no pitchahs, that’s okay. You spend $100,000 and get me no pitchahs, we got a problem.” He kind of drew out the word, “prrroblem.” I gulped and left his office.

My notion was that this camera was made for people of stature, a heroic instrument, if you will. You have to literally stand for your portrait. You collect yourself in the dark, holding still, waiting for the strobe explosion. And then you are done. One shot. (90% of our subjects we did in one exposure. Each sheet of Polaroid cost $300. I dreaded blinkers.)

It became a document known as Faces of Ground Zero. It toured through seven stops, opening at Grand Central Station, and coming back to NY a year later. For the anniversary show they threw a huge tent over where they usually put the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. It was seen by lots of people. The Polaroids and the resultant book(s) helped the sponsors, Time Warner and Morgan Stanley, to donate close to $2 million dollars to the relief of downtown public education. In the tent at the Rock Center show, we sold about $40,000 worth of books in 3 weeks. All of it went to the downtown PTA’s.

It also acquainted me with an extraordinary group of people, many of whom I stay in touch with to this day.

Danny and Joanne Foley. The Foley’s are one of the most giving, decent, loving families I have ever met. A firefighting family. Danny promised his folks he would bring his brother, Tommy, home. Tommy was on Rescue 3, one of the first responders. Eight men were on that truck. None came back. Danny stood for this picture a few days after finding Tommy’s body. In the year after 9/11, he stepped up and took his brother’s place at Rescue 3, in the Bronx.

Joanne, about a year later, at the family farm, with Tommy’s cowboy hat.

Jan Demczur, a Polish window washer who scraped through 6 inches of sheet rock with his squeegee blade and thus saved the 4 people he was trapped in an elevator with. His squeegee is in the Smithsonian.

About a year after, Jan didn’t go outside much, and was living very quietly.

Mike Wernick, who survived the 93 bombing, and 9/11, now retired. His story of the day is powerful and moving. When he came into the Polaroid studio, the shock of it was still on his face.

Mike and his wife Nuri are one of the most loving couples I know. They survived that day quite simply because of that love. Together they run a motorcycle garage in Manhattan called Rising Wolf (one of the only bike garages in NY) and I managed to shoot this from the back of my assistant’s Jeep a couple years ago.

My good friend, Louie Cacchioli. Louie saved a lot of people that day by keeping his head and telling them to follow his light. Out on West St., running from the second collapse, he was overtaken by the cloud of ash and soot. Blinded by the smoke, he felt along the ground and stumbled onto a discarded oxygen mask. He clapped it to his face. He estimates he had about 30 seconds left.

Later that year, he looked at the skyline from the Staten Island ferry.

Years later, he posed for the prototype D3.

I always describe Louie as a firefighting Robert DeNiro. He tends to make women swoon. He’s retired now, and gives lectures and tours at the WTC site. He was the cover of the book (go figure) and it is one of the blessings of my life that having a camera in my hand enabled me to meet this man.

Joe Hodges. A veteran firefighter who could have easily retired after 9/11, but chose to stay on. “The older guys have to stick around and show the younger guys the way,” was how he put it.

Joe works now at at the Governor’s Island house, and I shot this on July 4th a couple of years ago.

I’ve always been convinced the project worked quite simply because it was photographs of a bunch of really, really good people. We had luck, to be sure. The camera never broke down. Good thing, as it really has no spare parts, and is finicky to work at best. Most guest shooters would make, maybe, 5 images or so (you rent the camera on a daily basis, at that time $2000 per day, plus $300 per sheet). There were days (and nights) we pulled over 40 images out the machine. It kept working.

So we kept working. Our last subject was Rudy Giuliani. He finally came on the last night. We were out of money, out of time. We shot 2 Polaroids of hizzoner, and closed the doors.

Things you don’t think about while you are in the throes of a project like this, are, what happens next? When the Rock Center show closed, I became the owner, lock, stock and metal framework, of about 10 tons of photography. (The framed pieces, which form the traveling core of the show, are 4′x9′ and weigh about 300 pounds.) They reside currently in museum quality, climate controlled storage in a warehouse in New Jersey.

That’s a lot of pictures.

That’s also a pretty sizable storage bill every month, which I have handled pretty much on my own for the last 7 years. Sometimes I just shrug and think of it as a second mortgage. Other times, when there has been no work and less grace in this business, it has veered close to breaking the studio. There have been nights I have woken up and simply thought, well, I’ll just get a permit from my buds in the fire department and set the whole thing ablaze and be done with it.

Together with Ellen Price (epriceinc@earthlink.net), who is the curator of the collection, and has worked more pro bono hours on its behalf than I can remember, we have plied the hallways of corporations and spoken to many about its survival as an important record of that time. Jan Ramirez, now the Chief Curator & Director of Collections at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, has been a champion of the collection since early on, when she was at the NY Historical Society. Along with Alice Greenwald, the Director of the Museum, they have issued a letter of intent to acquire, which has been a huge blessing. It means that sometime down the road, these pictures will find an appropriate home.

Many powerful people came and spoke powerful words while standing in front of these pictures in the days after 9/11. So powerful, they are not the kind that return the phone calls of a freelance photographer. No surprise there. (Or, I’m sure to any who have made their living over any period of time with a camera. I write occasionally to my alumni magazine at Syracuse, to the section which details the comings, goings and achievements of past graduates. I simply say, “After 35 years, Joe McNally is still jobless, and living around New York City.”) Funny, they’ve never published that.

This was impressed on me even further at the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. We staged the Polaroids again, this time at the NYC Fire Museum. We had no money… not a dime. We made entreaties, asked around as best we could. Nothing. I have a loose affiliation with Getty Pictures, so I wrote to my editor at the time, David Laidler, a good guy, who’s no longer there. Came back with a no. Alright. I’m nothing if not tenacious. I wrote again, more, shall we say, pointedly. Getty coughed up $10k. I chipped in five grand of my own dough, and we had enough to pull off a show.

The crates weigh about 2,000 pounds, and we had no funds for a forklift. So groups of off duty firefighters would come in shifts to pull and haul. I tried helping, but Keith Johnson of Ladder 6 just turned to me and said, “Joe, stay away from the crates. We’re firefighters. We’ve got lifetime disability. What happens if you throw your back out? You’re a freelance photographer. Nobody gives a shit about you.” True enough.

So, they sit now in crates, once again. I spoke recently at Adorama, and had a great, fun audience. I presented a few of the Ground Zero images. Memories of that time are still powerful. Jeff Snyder, who came to Adorama from Penn Camera, and I have been friends a long time. We started talking. He set up a meeting with the administration of the store, which was not held over a conference table the size of a football field on the 60th floor of a midtown tower. We sat in a small room over a camera store. It was like meeting the family. In fact, it was meeting the family. We shook hands. There were no lawyers, no contracts, no clauses with subsections 1 through 17, paragraphs D, E and F.

Adorama now is a partner in helping me keep this collection together and finding it a safe harbor. The people in these pictures trusted me with their images, thoughts and feelings in those tortuous days after 9/11. They made the effort to come to a camera that sounds strange, despite best efforts to describe it over the phone. They have formed their own, informal, emotionally connected community. I owe it to them to see this through. Adorama, will now help me do that.

There’s a reason they call it “the photo community.” Because it is.

Again, many thanks to Jeff Snyder, Monica Cipnic, and all the folks at Adorama.

90 Responses to “Welcome Adorama!”

Craig Lee says:

on July 9, 2008 at 12:52 am

A very moving post. Thank you and Adorama for perserving these pieces of our history.

Eric says:

on July 9, 2008 at 1:28 am

Go Adorama, that is kind of them to help. I will send my next order to them just for this.

David says:

on July 9, 2008 at 3:18 am

You’re a great guy Joe. You deserve every success. And for Adorama, good on them! They will definitely be getting my business from now on!

David Apeji says:

on July 9, 2008 at 7:05 am

I’ve been a big fan of Adorama for some time. They are one of the very few outfits that will ship to Nigeria!

Janice says:

on July 9, 2008 at 7:14 am

Joe, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, feelings and images. You spoke to my heart. How awesome. And thanks to Adorama for stepping up, seeing the heart in your work and know they are doing the right thing.

Weasie says:

on July 9, 2008 at 9:13 am

Thank you Joe!!!! Jeff told me to check out your blog and I am so happy to read that all your hard work and brilliant idea is being recognized. I’m not sure why a museum hasn’t latched onto your images, I can’t think of anything more important in our history than 9/11. What beautiful people!!! take care

Simon Leech says:

on July 9, 2008 at 9:24 am

Wow, probably the most moving blog entry I have ever read. Well done. Tears in my eyes….

Chris Usher says:

on July 9, 2008 at 11:20 am

Way to go Joe and Adorama!
It goes to show that following your heart and fighting the good fight may not fill the coffers, but will always fill hearts and minds for years to come and those hearts and minds will step up when most needed.
The legacy and gravity of these noble people and their stories and Joe’s photographs must endure for the time generations from now when 9/11 is no longer a memory, but a reference in history books.

Kudos to Joe and Adorama!!!

Cheers, Chris

S. Pennington says:

on July 9, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Joe: In 2011 an event at the Hollywood Bowel in California called “The Release of Souls” Remeberance will be held. Your photos need to be there….showing the story as it is told…..can we discuss this at a future date?
Thanks for a great display…it humanizes the loss and the celebration of Americans at their best…in one of the saddest events in it’s long history…..

S. Pennington ptsd firefighterveteran
Ex IAFF 26 year career
North American Fire Fighter Veterans Network
on the web: firefighterveteran.com/

email: firefighterveteran@hotmail.com

T Peterson says:

on July 9, 2008 at 4:47 pm

You’re such a clown, then this. You’re a good man Joe McNally.

Alessandro Rosa says:

on July 9, 2008 at 5:48 pm


I was there. In the Concourse just as the first plane hit. I saw the fireball that came down the elevator shafts and filled the lobby. I felt its intense heat on my neck as I ran for my life and survived it.

In the hours, days, weeks, months and years since, I have always been in awe of the rescue workers, the people who fought the overwhelming urge that I felt to run away from there and ran in to try and save people just like you and me; ordinary, everyday people who were just trying to make a living and a better life for their families.

In a way I felt guilty that so many of them were able to overcome that fear and lost their lives and when I had escaped unharmed and survived. I understand why you love these people so much and why they mean so much to you and why it was so important for you to do what you did by telling their story.

Thank you for the sacrifices you have made to preserve their stories and thank you to Adorama for getting involve when doing something to preserve the legacy of those who sacrificed and lossed on 9/11 when it is no longer the in thing to do.

Adrienne DeArmas says:

on July 9, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Joe, I’ve always been a fan of these portraits and as an independent museum curator trying to accomplish a similar task with a much smaller (weight-wise) project on Katrina, I know of what you speak. Keep fighting, don’t get that fire permit. If you haven’t contacted them, you might want to try SITES, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service… you never know what they will be willing to take on.

Your passion, fortitude, and vision are impressive and have gotten you this far in a less than nurturing economic market. Keep up the good work, and may the support of your peers and sponsors encourage you to achieve even greater goals!



Walt Rowand says:

on July 9, 2008 at 9:28 pm

Joe, Thank You. Fantastic blog its as if it was yesterday. Best Regards.

Kurt Roesand says:

on July 10, 2008 at 9:09 am

Thank you Joe for this incredible post. You are truly an inspiration. Although I’m Norwegian; 9/11 had a huge impact on me. To read this years later really brings me back to that day.

I remember the really quit mood even in my home town here in Norway when I drove home from work that day. I salute the heroes of 9/11, the brave firemen that put the life of others first instead of their own.

I only wish I could experience these images in real life, someday maybe.

- Kurt

Mike D. says:

on July 10, 2008 at 10:38 am

You continue to be an inspiration to me. Great story about REAL people.
Adorama has been a great resource for me and has gained a customer for life.


Fernando Hiro says:

on July 10, 2008 at 10:47 am

Joe, incredible, your picture don’t need explanation…..you always tranfsorm your pictures in wonderfoul histories….


Mark Westman says:

on July 10, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Joe… this article should be in TIME…or Nat Geo, or somewhere… it was really well done…. your talent, your efforts, the memories of 9/11 and what you and Adorama are doing to preserve those memories, those lives… wow.

Fantastic. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing. Ditton on Adorama getting all my buis from now on.


Nick Hudson-Swogger says:

on July 10, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Joe, those pictures are what photography is all about. They are an integral part of our 9/11 national conscious, and need to be preserved. I would have thought the Smithsonian would want these photographs.

Danielle says:

on July 10, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Joe, you may not have a lot of money, but what a legacy you will leave. Thanks so much for caring about the heroes of 9/11.

Svend Erik Christiansen says:

on July 11, 2008 at 5:15 am

The sight of the twin towers going down that tuesday september 11th 2001 will forewer be imprinted in the hearts and minds of everyone who saw what happened on site and around the world on TV.

I am one of the many millions who watched it happen live on TV thousands of miles away here in safe little Denmark. And while watching it i was thinking of all the people who’s life from now on would change forewer.

Your work showed us the people who right behind the flickering images of smoke, dust and fire on TV abruptly where ripped out of their everyday New York life and hurled into chaos death and destruction.

With Faces of Ground Zero you created a document of eweryday people who became heroes, some in the line of doing their job and duty and some simply by a twist of fate.

I can’t tell you how astonished i was reading that this important document of heroism and sacrifice was not on permanent display in a climatized building somewhere downtown Manhattan but stored away in a warehouse in New Jersey.

The more i am glad to see that Adorama now has stepped up to give you a helping hand preserving those invaluable pictures, i wish you all the best to your new partnership and that maybe sometime in the future you’ll find a place for a permanent exhibition.

Svend Erik Christiansen

Dave says:

on July 16, 2008 at 3:25 am

Why The Smithsonian hasn’t snatched these up is beyond me. I’ve never purchased anything from Adorama, but after reading about their participation in the preservation of these images I certainly will be. Thanks for all that you do Joe.

TJ says:

on July 25, 2008 at 10:37 pm

Well, I’m glad Adorama helped you with this Joe. (I’m surprised the Smithsonian hasn’t sat down with you to keep these). After giving Adorama a try on your recent advice here, I just can’t recommend them as a camera store. While folks at Adorama both couldn’t tell when the D700 would be in or when the Nikon shipment came in what would be in it – folks in the same time frame at another camera shop were confirming Saturday delivery for me. The person at Adorama (and mentioned on this blog) also made terrible lens suggestions when asked for their two cents – really the 24-85 or the 24-120 – yikes, you’d think I’d asked them to list some of the few real Nikkor disappointments. It was a bit like listening to a car salesman – say anything, get the sale. And on the lenses that I did order – after nearly a week went by, I inquired on the general sales line and (aside from the order being incorrect) the person told me that they were waiting for all items to be in-stock before they shipped. I cancelled and called up the other large NYC shop (hint: starts with a “B” and ends with an “H” that afternoon and 18 hrs later (with std shipping mind you) those lenses were at my doorstep (which is always the case with them). I’ve shopped there (B&H) for two decades now and had excellent service all the while. The folks you mentioned may work their tail off to get gear for Joe McNally but really it was the most apathetic support I’ve ever experienced from a camera store (although the customer service people not recommended by name on this blog were helpful in correcting issues) – so the super service doesn’t appear to apply generally, even from the same folks. I mention this because I gave them a try based on the recommendation in your blog and thought you might want the feedback.

The good news is that I’ve come back to Nikon after a few great years shooting Canon. It feels like home. I’ve got the 14-24 and the expected update to the 70-200 on my wish list this year.

I enjoy the blog and really enjoyed reading “The Moment it Clicks”. Keep up the great work.

JC says:

on August 25, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Hi Joe,

This is my 1st visit to your website and I am glad I did!

Reading this posting, I know you have a deep sense of commitment towards your work and the people who work with you. Very glad to read that Adorama’s also recognize your work, effort and good intention & commitment. Keep up the good work! Will continue to visit your site to learn more from you. Not only your knowledge in photography but also the way you live up to your determination in life!

wes chamness says:

on September 8, 2008 at 4:04 pm

wow. i’ve not heard a word of this project till today. listening to the podcast this week in photography, they were talking about the project and the camera you used to capture these wonderful images.

reading what you’ve said here brings back to me everything that happened on that day and the days that followed. how much it changed the lives of Americans and everyone the world over.

i plan to share this posting with friends and family and i hope that it touches them the way that it has touched me.

thank you joe for being the awesome human being that you are.

David Solo says:

on December 6, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Joe, is there a Fund set up for the preservation of the collection yet? I,d like to send you a donation.

Corinne Castillo says:

on January 9, 2009 at 5:17 am

good luck

Mark W. Gregory says:

on August 12, 2010 at 3:34 am

Hello Joe,
I say howdy from down here in Texas and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed viewing your gifted work. You have really captured the mood, feel, and emotions of your subjects. All of us Americans across the country will relive 9/11 in our hearts forever. Looking into the eyes of the Foleys particularly, the sense of loss and grief in their eyes is such, that only a well-trained photographer like you could capture. And brother, YOU did. I was overcome with grief and tears. It shows us just how much the families are forever scarred over the loss of their coveted loved one. My heart breaks so badly for them. It makes you wish you could reach up to God for the families and say, “We want him back!!!” If I had the power, it would have already been done. ~~~Keep up the good work, Joe! Mark in Dallas

Mark A. Kathurima says:

on February 17, 2011 at 2:59 am

Joe, this is a singularly powerful post. I have bought my gear from Adorama for a few years now, and reading this post reaffirms my loyalty.

The images of 9/11 have such a quiet poignancy, I had a lump in my throat. Human tragedy is an undeniable common denominator. But the heroism and the strength of a few gives rise to a collective determination to survive, to thrive.

Thank you, Mr. McNally, for doing what you do.

Best regards from Kenya,

Tina says:

on February 17, 2011 at 7:22 pm

thank you for such a moving post, it was an amazing read. I’ll definitely be looking at Adorama for further gear. Thanks again!

Tina – Australia

JJ says:

on September 13, 2011 at 7:57 am

Thanx for sharing your phenomenal experience and abilities. Mauch appreciated JJ (South Africa)

Cherly Nindorf says:

on June 17, 2013 at 9:16 am

Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your post seem to be running off the screen in Chrome. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Cheers

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