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As Good As It Gets

Sep 23

In Thoughts, Travels at 12:03am

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.

74 Responses to “As Good As It Gets”

Pierre says:

on September 25, 2008 at 9:20 pm

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:

on September 26, 2008 at 10:38 am

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.

JBelle says:

on September 27, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Hope you’ll have a minute to comment on Paul Newman’s death.

Mark Griffith says:

on October 2, 2008 at 9:45 pm

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.

MarcZ says:

on October 3, 2008 at 7:59 pm

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.

Justin says:

on October 5, 2008 at 7:38 pm

The last two paragraphs are inspirational. Thanks again for, yet another, superb post.

mk says:

on October 6, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Boy… those numbers at the top of this page actually look pretty good today! Heh.

Joe says:

on October 7, 2008 at 12:00 am

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.

Sean says:

on October 10, 2008 at 11:09 am

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.

Thank You,


Don Risi says:

on October 10, 2008 at 10:21 pm

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:

on October 19, 2008 at 4:19 pm

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:

on March 12, 2009 at 10:06 am

I alike the way you put it. tks for the info…

Cole Powell says:

on May 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm

sometimes i also have anxiety attacks and when it happens, i just breathe slowly and deeply to help me relax..”*

Alex Pletcher says:

on May 6, 2010 at 9:44 am

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:

on May 6, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Relaxation techniques and meditation can help a lot during Anxiety Attacks. .”.

Annamae Avner says:

on May 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

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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