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Jul 12

In In The Field, Rambling at 4:53am


On a plane….where else to write? Got to my seat, did the usual. Cameras in the overhead quickly, to lay claim to that real estate. Overhead space has become so valuable to get to first that, come boarding time, the gate agent might as well have a starter’s gun instead of a PA system.

Other bag….pull out laptop, and Bose headphones to weather summertime’s screaming children passengers. (I like kids, but on deadline, after a job, on planes, well, the bad Joe takes a bit of an inside word ramble. “You have a lovely child. Looks a little under the weather. Oh my! I’ve got some Benadryl right here!)

Ipod and Iphone go in the seat pockets. Power cord for the whole electronic shebang, should I be blessedly upgraded. Cards and reader come out, to download pix. Eyeglasses geared for the computer screen.

My “normal” walk around glasses have a progressive lens pattern that is so outright weird after 35 years of straining my left eye through cameras, while my right eye often stays open, that my prescription reads like an unsolvable math problem. My right eye will roam when I shoot, on patrol for approaching permit police, pedestrians about to cross the lens, misfiring flashes, editors with unhappy expressions on their face, and hair and makeup people poised on the fringe of the frame, desperately searching for the stray hair.

(The fashion folks are great, but their on set antics always conjures up a wartime buddy movie in my admittedly oddball noggin. Tensed and ready, they operate in teams, desperately searching for the offending garment wrinkle or slightly uneven bend of the guava passion pink lip liner. When they see it, they might as well be dressed as commandos. “I’m goin’ in!” shouts hair. “On your six!” makeup calls back. And boom, like style medics they are on your subject. I can just about feel the downwash of the approaching rescue helicopter on my neck.)

Anyway, my left eye bulges, ogre-like, into the eyepiece  and my right eye tends to pinwheel. This has left me with a combo that according to my eye doc should have me walking, punchdrunk, in a small circle all day long.

That hasn’t happened yet, but it could. I put almost nothing beyond the potential consequences of doing this thing that we do. The ramifications ripple through the rest of your life. I’ve been blessed by most of those ripples, generally. At least none has outright laid me low. But you know that it could. The camera is a machine that produces change. Every time you shoot with meaning, like a tree, you grow another ring. You throw a rock in the pond. Sometimes a big one.


Just grew another ring. My 15th coverage for the National Geographic got published this month. (Fifteen coverages spread over 24 years doesn’t sound like a lot, but I took a break from the freelance wars in the 90′s to become a staff shooter at LIFE magazine, and thus exclusive to them.) Interesting topic, as yellow mag subject matter tends to be. The evolution of the electric grid in the U.S. It’s a desperately important issue, which of course, drove the magazine to tackle it.

Nothing exotic. No Tahitian sunsets, no blasé French couples coupling on bridges overlooking the Seine. No strange tribal rituals where boys become men, should they survive. (“If you wish to photograph these secret rites of passage, you, too, must pass the test where you pull the sacred ring of the maiden from deep in the throat of the massive river crocodile who happens to be in mating season!” )

“Uh, thank you, no. I’m busy shooting the electric grid.”


The grid had it’s moments, though, I tell ya. For a week, I went to work with lineman building the Tehachapi Project, in the Angeles Forest, north of LA. Tough piece of terrain, very fire-prone, very protected. Hence, there were no roads to much of the area where the towers got built. Helicopters were the vehicle of choice. The linemen would stand on heli skids, yoked to the outside of the bird, and get flown into the very top of the towers, little metal peaks they call “goat tips.” The foreman looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, it’s cake.”

Yeah, but cake tastes different when you’re 57 than when you’re 25, and have rubber legs. Barreling into these towers, holding on left handed, and firing a D3S fixed up with a 16mm fish with my right, I was pushing more than a camera button. You can hear the wind in your own wires, whispering, “Can you still do it, numnuts, or are they gonna take your sorry ass outta here in a basket?”

For the above pic, I went up to the tower early, and the chopper dropped me right where you see this crew getting dropped. I shouted to the pilot to make sure he put the crews right there, i.e., in good light. He screamed back, “I’ll pop ‘em any goddam place you want ‘em!” After I got dropped, I scampered (make that painstakingly put one foot in front of the other) to the other goat tip, where I climbed up and shot this crew going to work, which, thankfully, the magazine ran as a double truck. Great, clear morning. Got lucky with the light.


Every morning, I would stretch out, have a quick conversation with St. Jude, and jump on the skid. “Da guys” were great. More than once they would sling my Moose Pack along with their tools and lunch bucket, leaving “the old guy” just toting a camera. The chopper pilots were amazing. Precise as surgeons in the air, they’d pull wire with a couple inches of clearance, and pick and drop guys off three inch angle iron 300 feet up as easy as taxi picks up a midtown rider.

I got used to moving around up there, though I was painfully slow, compared to the real line guys. I found the “dead end boards” daunting. Hung from the actual cables, these extend out from the towers at precipitous angles, bouncing in the wind. Lineman walk them like they’re on a Sunday stroll. I was stiff legged, and held the safety wire with a death grip.

But that’s what you do. As a photog, you’re always the new kid. You get a brief, and you go. Pictures to be made, stories to be told. It’s that old Irish thing, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound. Rather die than fail. Actually, considering the earful I would get if I handed a bad take to my editor back at HQ, it’s not a bad philosophy. (I think that’s my father talking there. He used to call the obit section of the paper the “Irish sports pages.”)  More tk from the land of the yellow border tomorrow.

50 Responses to “Dispatches”

Michelle says:

on July 12, 2010 at 5:29 am

Great story Joe and the picture of the office building stopped me in my tracks. Hope your flight wasn’t too boring and stop giving the kids ‘benadryl’!

Paul Dymond says:

on July 12, 2010 at 5:47 am

Hi there Joe,

I love your work and the story on the grid has some amazing photographs. I have to ask, the shot in the opening spread of the office building in New York. I’m guessing you organised for all those office lights to be on at the same time but did you end up lighting anything? Something on the outside of the building to get those three bands of different light? Knowing what a glutton you are for going the extra mile to light everything up I think my favourite images of yours from this story were all natural light.

cheers from Cairns, Australia

Paul Dymond

Paul Bratcher says:

on July 12, 2010 at 6:08 am

Great story, makes my fears of shooting people climbing cliffs from a nice ‘safe’ ledge rather small in comparison. Joe, you got some guts!

Have a good flight!

Ban_D says:

on July 12, 2010 at 6:18 am

Wow – its just an excellent story again, with not only good shots (my fav is the last one), but also with a good sense of humor in it.
Once you would ever put down the cam (don’t do, for God’ sake! :-) ), go for writing!

Joe McNally says:

on July 12, 2010 at 6:56 am

Hey Paul…no lights, just luck. I’ll talk about it in tomw.’s blog…many thanks, Joe

Patrick says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:12 am

This why this photographer is a prayer warrior as well, at least to pray for those crazy-adventuresome photographers who risk their life for the shot! While I’d love to do the work you do Joe, I can see you need more prayers for protection and safety. I’ll offer my evening prayers and Rosary for you.

Holding that Nikon tight in hand while I get on my knees…:)

Craig Lee says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:25 am

Joe-where is the picture from the back of the magazine? The one with you in it, taken from the other helicopter? I wish they would have run more of the photos in the magazine. The ones on the web-site look great. I love the little touches you put into your photos-like the movement on the control room one or the flash of light on the guy in at the cable pipeline. Thanks for inspiring, and sharing.

John Kile says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:39 am

My issue of NatGeo arrived this last week. Awesome pics Joe. You have the gift, and the insanity to make the best of it.
Thanks for sharing.

Bahram says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:48 am

Awesome article and as usual crazy unimaginable images

Matti Vaittinen says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:54 am

Great post again! If you ever stop shooting you could probably work as a columnist for magazine too :)
I got a good laugh from that fashion people part.

Tim Skipper says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:58 am

Joe, I have often seen you refer to yourself as “numnuts” I think you change that to “steel-nuts”. I would love to say I’d be as brave to do things you’ve done, but I can’t say that for sure. Like climbing out on the Empire State building, major pucker factor. Me I imagine I would get a double truck of photog pisses himself. Maybe that’s why I stay with portraiture, both feet safely planted on the ground.

As always though I am inspired by your work ethic as much as I am your work.

Bob DeChiara says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:01 am

No fear of heights I see..I am scared just looking at the photos.

Great stuff Joe!

PMLPhoto says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:07 am

Hell, my knees feel weak again, just like when I read about (and watched the video) of you on the Empire State. How do you do it as I know for a cert I couldn’t, I can barely wash the upstairs windows in at my hosue. Images in the mag look great as always.

Ken Toney says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:09 am

Joe, I’m going to Barnes N Noble to look for that issue today! Hope you didn’t get any “jolts” from this job. :)

Ian Pack says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:21 am

There’s no doubt about it, no matter how much planning and preparation, you need b . . . s to get shots like this. I guess the VAL decided to step down for this job;-)

An excellent article made all the better for your stunning images. Now I must go through my National Geographic collection and see how many of your stories I can find – that will be a labour of love; they go back to January 1982!

Mark says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:25 am

Great reportage as usual. Love reading the notes from the field. Keep those rubbery legs moving!

Girish says:

on July 12, 2010 at 8:30 am

You are great story writer as well. You really it up very nicely.

Would love to see more photographs of the above mentioned National Geographic shoot. Can you post them on your site.

Nour El Refai says:

on July 12, 2010 at 9:08 am

Wonderful story, and I love the way you write those little things that goes into your photographer’s mind, they are hilarious and makes me laugh, like the summertime’s screaming children passengers, or the things you wrote in your book ” The moment it clicks ” about the man who agreed to assist you and kept asking himself why he agreed to that !! some of those small things are very real and they happen to me all the time, and I think about them more often than I think about what to eat.

Steve Eshom says:

on July 12, 2010 at 9:13 am

No risk, no reward. That said I’m not sure I’d climb out of a heli onto one of those towers. You’ve got guts Joe… and as usual your efforts paid off and now the rest of couch potatoes know how wire is strung.

Daithí says:

on July 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

Loved this post Joe… looking forward to tomorrows update.

Best regards from Ireland!

Jay Auskalnis says:

on July 12, 2010 at 9:55 am

For crissakes, I get shaky knees cleaning my gutters 15 feet up. The heli photos are wild!

I love the “grid” photo the most. It seems so simple…sort of a “Why wouldn’t I think of something like that?” But, of course I didn’t. I always pick up little tidbits of knowledge from your blog and can’t wait until the workshop in a few weeks.

Lubinski says:

on July 12, 2010 at 10:35 am

Excellent article as always. I look forward to new posts all the time. Keep it up, you inspire my work.

Paul Glover says:

on July 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

“Anyway, my left eye bulges, ogre-like, into the eyepiece and my right eye tends to pinwheel.”

Anyone else picturing Joe as “Mad Eye Moody” from the Harry Potter series?

Love the photograph of the helicopter inches from the wires setting down the line crew. There isn’t enough money in the world to get me up there…

R.J. says:

on July 12, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Great Stuff, I wish would’ve known you were in Texas, I could’ve hooked you up with some great BBQ in Sweetwater!

joe says:

on July 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I thought shooting giant gas compressors on extremely wind-swept prairies was nerve-wracking, I’ve got Nothing on you Joe!! Hat’s off to you for the B@!!$ to shoot that.

bryan rapoza says:

on July 12, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Cameras and helicpoters, and a couple hundred thousand volts, sounds like a good time to me!

great story. thanks for sharing.

Greg Balzer says:

on July 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm

While young strobist is out photographing opera stars safely in his garage, old numbnuts is working hard to be featured on AARP magazine’s cover as “Man of the Year”. Keep up the good work in representing the “Over 50″ crowd.

Mike Neale says:

on July 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Hummm,…where’s their grounding strap to the copter? OSHA must wonder too,…..;-))

Thanks for inspiring us all!


Paul McG says:

on July 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I read the item in NG a few days ago in the post. Was blown away with some of the images and how they told the story. You certainly managed a very fine job on that one Joe. I Gues that’s why they’ve asked you back…

Angi says:

on July 12, 2010 at 3:26 pm

If it were my monsters and I on a flight, they would have already had their Benadryl. Shhh. :-D
Congratulations on your 15th cover!

David Helms says:

on July 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Hoooooooly Crap Camera man!! It is hard enough to fly one of those MD 5 series choppers, but to step out onto the tip? Forget the benedryl for junior, pass the scotch and heavy narcotics… I do not for the life of me knows how Annie let’s you out of the house… wait a minute…. maybe a plan there?
As always your work is amazing. Your humor??? World Class!!

David Helms says:

on July 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm

My mistake, ’85 Hughes 369….

Jamie Carl says:

on July 12, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Jumping off a heli skid at 300 feet up ‘just’ to get a picture?

I want your job.


Gyula says:

on July 12, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Great story Joe!

Luis P says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:25 pm

I misread at first and thought you were giving the kids Brandy. Joe what an amazing read always find the story you tell so interesting and the pix inspiring.

Knh771 says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:43 pm

“…Fifteen coverages spread over 24 years doesn’t sound like a lot…”

A lot of people would give up a limb to be able to say they’d ONLY shot fifteen articles for the Geographic. :-) You are truly blessed. Love the pics. Can’t decide if I like the office building or the kids playing video games more.

Louis Pang says:

on July 12, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Joe, I come here for every blog post that you put up. It’s on my iPhone RSS reader. Won’t miss a post for anything. It always inspire me to probe, climb, try, dream. Thanks!

John Harper says:

on July 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Dude, you’ve got ‘nads…

Jack McGinnis says:

on July 12, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Joe amazing as always. As I says in my mind I am still twenty but when I act like I’m twenty my body reminds me the next day or two. Great story

Francois Choi says:

on July 13, 2010 at 12:28 am

i was see that photo electronic speacial , Joe on my National geographic magazine. :D

Dave Updegraff says:

on July 13, 2010 at 5:02 am

What a great post. I could not have done that shoot (even if I had the talent.) Talk about dedication to your craft. I’m a new fan of yours now! Very impressive Joe.


Steve Salt says:

on July 13, 2010 at 9:59 am

Wonderful! As a staff photographer for a utility, i feel your pain! climbing, crawling, dirt, noise…but great people. Natural light is important when working with electricity, linemen don’t like random flashes of light!

Chris Smith says:

on July 13, 2010 at 11:16 am

Joe, I’m a 57 year old photographer who shoots left-eyed and wears glasses– I was laughing
so hard that I almost fell out of my office chair (good thing I couldn’t tell how far it was
to the floor). Thanks.

Ratso Rizzo says:

on July 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm


And I happen to like that shot of the building very much. Would you mind identifying which building it is ? And where you shot from ?

First I thought it may be a library but I can’t figure out which. Maybe it’s some semi-newish NYU building ?

It really has me thinking. Very few office buildings can you even see into let alone a bank of windows like that. So I don’t think it’s an office building. Nor does it look set up like one. I’m back at library but I don’t know what library in the city that could be.

Please post the building or I won’t be able to sleep.


on July 14, 2010 at 12:54 am

Hmm…. Me think Numnuts has big nuts! :-)

Hats off to you sir! You continue to be an inspiration!


Dave Crudele says:

on July 19, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Boy Joe… you even managed to get a yellow bird with a tail number that starts with N and ends with G. The National Geographic folks must have some clout. Great work as always!

Corey Woodruff says:

on July 21, 2010 at 8:15 am

Joe, your new business cards are in. The ones that read: “Joe McNally, Camera-Toting Badass”

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