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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”

bahram says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:41 am

you’d be happy to know that our 10 month old is now a subscriber to National Geographic!!
Great stuff Joe. Love this blog!!!

Ally Brasko says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:54 am

Don’t worry, I just asked my mom if she would suscribe to Nat Geo a couple of days ago and I’m a teen.(:
I really like your last two paragraphs, also.

Joe McNally says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:57 am

way to go Bahram…..you’re raisin’ that kid right, as I knew you would! Hope you are well, and thanks for taking a look at the blog….Best, Joe

Joan Marc Carbo Arnau says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:58 am

Yours is a great down to earth philosophy. You’ve already earned a seat in the human beings hall of fame. Keep on showing us your views of the world.

Dave Taylor says:

on September 23, 2008 at 1:40 am

Your blog is always so insightful, full of humor, and timely. I loved everything about this entry, but the last few paragraphs really hit home. I’ll save those words as a reminder for all that photography gives us, and our viewers. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m quoting your last 2 paragraphs on my blog. I only wish that I could have come up with something so eloquent, heart felt, and amazing. I always look forward to your more tk. Take care.

Mike says:

on September 23, 2008 at 2:21 am

Your last two paragraphs are amazing. Unfortunately my life revolves around a cubicle farm by day (Occassional evening, weekend ect.) and part time photographer any other chance I get. So your words really hit home and give me lots of inspiration until I can let go of the THAT farm and do what I love to do. Keep inspiring us with visuals and with words.

PS: I like the one of Shawn Johnson that didn’t run as well.

Dan Lurie says:

on September 23, 2008 at 2:51 am

Great post, Joe. Most of us (myself included) don’t have the courage to chance it and make photography our full time gig, but its heartening to know that those at the top deal with the same basic issues we do.

Matt Radlinski says:

on September 23, 2008 at 3:27 am


Been a fan since the Nat Geo airplane shoot. You’ve got a way with words (not to mention pictures). This reads like a noir fiction in Esquire.

Thanks for the insight, and I’ll buy you a beer one of these days.


Marcello says:

on September 23, 2008 at 3:44 am

eheh, man you’re really inspiring!
reading your tales almost makes me feel the smell of developing chemicals :)
(which, by the way, i guess i first smelled when you people were actually using them in business… only difference is that i was in elementary school, it the early 80′s ;) )

(oh, and you totally look like William H. Macy! ;) )


Jon T says:

on September 23, 2008 at 5:45 am

What a magic post.

You got right to the nub of it, so thank you Joe, you made my day…

ed linn says:

on September 23, 2008 at 8:21 am

reading your post is a great way to start the day.
i really enjoy the stories your experiences and of the characters you have come in contact with.
great words of wisdom from Joe!

Jake C says:

on September 23, 2008 at 8:22 am

Joe, thank you.

Just thanks.

Aaron S says:

on September 23, 2008 at 9:16 am

Thanks for a nother great post to remind those of us stuck in the cubicle farm that there is freedom out there waiting for us.

Linda says:

on September 23, 2008 at 10:06 am

Joe, love the blog–was in one of your PPSOP classes–after the cubicle farm I’m trying photography and your words of wisdom from today will be taped to my white board for encouragement. Keep up the great work!

James says:

on September 23, 2008 at 10:21 am

Perhaps I haven’t got the eye for it yet, but I think I prefer the image that ran. Says something more about the athlete.

great post today – always want more.

Mark K_NJ says:

on September 23, 2008 at 11:13 am

Brilliant post, as usual. But…

…of really cutting loose on a weekend was to pop open a brewski and fire up the weed wacker.

Sounds pretty much like my weekends now, so I’d change that “was” to “is”. Hey a 17-month old will do that.


We don’t go to a cubicle farm everyday and stair at dismaying numbers on a screen. We make pictures..

*sigh* Unfortunately, some of us DO go to a cubicle farm – not an Iowa farm – every day and then hope to snap some frames as time and location permits. And we read great blogs like this, hoping to file away a new tibit of information that will make us better photographers.

Speaking of brewski’s…try the “Rowhouse Red” from Philadelphia Brewing Co. Very tasty! :-)

Tim Solley says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm

You know, when I was a kid, my grandparents got me a subscription to NatGeo every year for years. I of course looked at the photos, ignored the text, and kept the maps to put on my walls.

Now I’m a dad of 29 with a two year old. I wait all month for that yellow border to show up in my mailbox, and when it does, I plop down excitedly on the couch with my son and we look through all the awesome photography. This month was a special treat as I yelled to my wife “Hey! Here’s the neanderthal cover shot that Joe McNally took! Woohoo!”.

My son really likes looking at all the photos in the magazine. He doesn’t watch TV, so I couldn’t tell you if he would like the NG channel. But you’d better believe he’ll grow up appreciating the magazine and all the hard work you photogs and writers put in to make it the finest magazine around.

And he’ll have a subscription every year, for years. And so will his kids.

Thanks for always dishing out the delicious nuggets Joe.

Mag Soszka says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Terrific blog Joe! Getting fired is sometimes a good thing, it allows you to re-think your career, your choices, and maybe thrive for something so much better. Unfortunately I’ve been stuck in a cubical farm for a very long time. The only thing that keeps me from going insane (especially in this wonderful market) is photography. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t choose that career path. Thankfully for the wonderful photographers blogs, magazines, and so forth I get to be apart of it. Photography is such a beautiful life.

Keep the blogs going so my sanity will remain at a semi-normal level ;)


Ps., I love the image of Poland! it’s where I grew up and I remember holding signs that said “solidarnosc (peace)” in the mid 80′s.

Robert B says:

on September 23, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Joe, I could read your stories for hours. I look forward to each new post on your blog. Not only do you provide creative inspiration but human inspiration as well. I was having a really crappy day feeling sorry for myself. Not anymore. Thanks !


Ryan McBride says:

on September 23, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Sitting in the backseat can be tough, but photographers do it best… some great words here Joe. May the freelance gods bless you more assignments

GGGWood says:

on September 23, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Love The Moment it Clicks. Love these sorts of stories. Love the way you present them.

I want the full-on Joe McNally autobiography. Don’t make me get Kelby on your ass.

Johnny Yuma says:

on September 23, 2008 at 1:40 pm

If your camera was used for nothing more then a teaching prop I think you would still do OK for yourself.

Balliolman says:

on September 23, 2008 at 2:40 pm

A really good read, from a thoughtful man: thank you, Joe.


Jeff Ambrose says:

on September 23, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Thanks Joe, its good to know there are still down to earth sane people out there.

Bay says:

on September 23, 2008 at 5:46 pm

What an inspiration. You make me want to leave this air-conditioned nightmare and wade through some reeking, cornfield mud with my camera in tow. Unfortunately my skill levels are lacking at this stage in my photography career, but maybe one day… I’m half-way through The Moment it Clicks – thanks Joe, what an awesome book.

Francesco says:

on September 23, 2008 at 6:34 pm

amazing post, Joe, truly beautiful.
Thank you so much


Marty says:

on September 23, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Joe, one of the photos of Shawn Johnson has made an appearance on the photoshop disasters blog.

Elizabeth Gower says:

on September 23, 2008 at 7:54 pm

I subscribe to NatGeo, my kids love it too, and my grandchildren subscribe to NatGeo for kids!

Randy says:

on September 23, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Joe, you are the reason I get yelled at by my wife every evening. “If your not sorting, proofing, or emailing shoots, you have no reason to be on that damn machine!”, my wife of 17 glorious years. I would say, I need my daily punch in the arm by someone who understands me. Joe, thank you. You have made it so much easier not to put all this camera shit up on ebay, because you go through the same perils us little guys go through, but I haven’t been fired from every job, maybe every other one. Looking forward to my next shot in the arm or kick in the pants. Pixs are awesome as usual, I’m stealing your ideas.
Take care

Robert Lee says:

on September 23, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Great entry Joe. It comes at a very appropriate point in time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you!

MattT says:

on September 23, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Is there a chance the photo of Shawn Johnson you gave SI is not the one they ran?


Tom says:

on September 23, 2008 at 9:02 pm

Your SI photo is making the rounds online. boingboing.net has it under “Creepy fingers” here: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/09/23/creepy-fingers-in-sp.html

Bill Rogers says:

on September 23, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Joe, love “The Moment,” love your blog. Y’know, for years I have nursed a pet theory that “fotographerz kant spel,” but then along came DH and JM who, it seemed, could. Spell, that is.

But now the “spell” is broken – “stair” at a screen, indeed. Oops.

Travis Jon Allison says:

on September 23, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Somebody has posting yet another version of the Shawn Johnson picture – with a creepy hand coming out of the corn.
I assume it’s whomever is holding the beam steady.
on BoingBoing: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/09/23/creepy-fingers-in-sp.html

turmukoy says:

on September 23, 2008 at 11:32 pm

this is your best blog so far, joe.

however, no industry has guarantees or fairness. even for us cubicle farmers of the semicon industry, everyone is liable to restructuring and the ups and downs of the industry anytime. from our point of view, your job is heaven. because it’s heaven when we get to go out on a photo tour and capture that piece of heart-flutterers in the midst. aftewards, its going back to the daily grind.

only people who are involve in the arts or sports can proudly say they love their jobs.

thanks for sharing a great post! this is a keeper.

Diane says:

on September 23, 2008 at 11:33 pm

Joe, thanks for sharing pieces of you and your story. I look forward to you posts and I’d really like to meet you someday.

Thanks for creating something and sharing it with the world.

David Hobby says:

on September 23, 2008 at 11:36 pm

Love the old newspaper posts. Laughed my ass off.

When I first started out, (Leesburg (FL) Commercial) the press was in our building and the whole place reeked of ink and cigar. I still love than smell.

By the time I left the BaltSun the newsroom had the smell of fear…

Jim says:

on September 24, 2008 at 12:10 am


You are truly one of my major sources of inspiration for me becoming and “being” a photographer. Great stuff on this recent post.

Did I mention that I posted a very unbiased and unabashed plug about you on “my” blog . . . LOL

Sissel says:

on September 24, 2008 at 12:33 am

I love this blog….and that I am actually reading Joe McNally history…and that I have figured out “where I live”. Thanks for writing it. I love this blog.

Rishi says:

on September 24, 2008 at 12:41 am

Insightful and nostalgic. You’re at ease with both images and words. That is inspiring for starters like us, who are dabbling in both. It’s such a beautiful piece to read.

Inspire us more.

Toni C says:

on September 24, 2008 at 3:49 am

That last paragraph was incredible. Perfectly said. I may have to quote you on that and post on my blog. Credit given to you of course.

Tom says:

on September 24, 2008 at 4:13 am

I like your blog a lot, and I think your pictures are great. But what impresses me the most is that even after being an established and respected photographer, you didn’t forget where you came from. It’s a qualitiy not many people have nowadys.

And thanks for sharing ….. :)

Derek says:

on September 24, 2008 at 11:45 am

I have to agree, your last two paragraph sums up why I love photography. It goes so well with the image of you standing spent in the corn field. I hope you don’t mind I added the text to the image and posted it on my blog.

Shutter Bitch says:

on September 24, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Makes me wish my job was photography and my hobby was accounting and not the reality that is an accounting job with a photography passion. Nice post, Joe. Really puts it into perspective.

P.S. I liked the second Shawn Johnson photo as well.

Chris Keels says:

on September 24, 2008 at 3:29 pm

Hi Joe,

great blog! I just want you know my two sons
of 3 and 5 flipped, paused and read through the latest
National Geographic. The Neanderthal article
was of particular interest, (lots of bones & spears) and is was with great enjoyment I smiled to myself saying yea this guy is doing good work.
I look forward to seeing you in Santa Fe!

Will Foster says:

on September 24, 2008 at 8:06 pm

“Nothing remains without change!”

Bruce Taylor says:

on September 25, 2008 at 10:27 am

Love the blog. I really enjoy the humility and the self deprecating humor. The sweat or rain soaked Joe photo is priceless. Don’t know how many times, as a working photog, I have been sweat or rain soaked to drowned rat appearance status. Ten years ago I ate the bullet and left my first love photojournalism world to work as a photographer/imaging expert in a crime lab. Steady work but I miss PJ every day.

Pablo says:

on September 25, 2008 at 11:57 am

Amazing amazing last paragraphs!! keep that in mind forever

I´m already reading this from a cubicle and your work (action and results) is one of the main things that helps to win my match of heart vs reason and get to do my best efforts to become a photog.

Greatings from Spain, many may have told you but make notice I´m another person who you have inspired and teached a lot.
thanks for all Joe, best wishes 4 U.

Tom says:

on September 25, 2008 at 6:33 pm

Thanks Joe. For those of us who are trying to make it full-time as a photographer right now, it’s definitely not easy (to say the least).

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