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Take a Picture of a Feeling…

Jan 18

In history at 7:36am

Every once in a while, you might get a feeling you need to shoot a picture. I would follow through on those, no matter how awkward, or sad, or inconvenient it might be. Over the years, I’ve made pictures of some feelings. Missed lots of times. Some, though, I still have a picture of, and I’m glad I do. Those pictures, of those feelings, have become my memory. When I saw my mom over Christmas, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would see her. So I made a picture.

My mom was an Irish lady with a trip wire temper and a pretty good right cross. She was also a good mom, in her way. She spent her life raising three kids, fiercely, and uprooting us as my dad kept changing jobs. He was gone a lot, so she bought and sold five homes on her own, and stuffed all of us and the dog into a Plymouth Belvedere, and headed for neighborhoods and schools unknown. She also spent her life doing battle with just about anybody she felt looked at her cross-ways, which was just about everybody, including, maybe even especially, her own family. She always spoke her mind. And if you didn’t agree with her, you were just, you know, wrong. Her steely bluntness made for lively family gatherings, which diminished in popularity and numbers over the years.

Ma was just about always at DEFCON One or Two at the least. Prickly to a fault, she went through her day on the alert for any fault or slight, real or perceived. If you did business with her, you pretty much got sued, or at the very least received a legally loaded, relatively unpleasant letter. She went through lawyers like popcorn.

Mom was a sword that cut both ways, of course. Her fearsomely direct approach to parenting left you no doubt as to where you stood as one of her kids, to be sure. But woe to someone she thought might have crossed one of us! One of my high school teachers who didn’t care for my attitude, an Irish Christian brother no less, drastically re-jiggered one of my grades once to negatively affect my GPA. She went to the school and fixed it, and him. I’m sure he said his prayers that night with renewed vigor.

Neighbors were an especially favorite target, especially if they had the temerity to actually stick around, and plant bushes she didn’t find attractive, or re-grade their property so that by her lights their runoff water would then hurtle, Niagara-like, towards her property. Once, a neighbor came over to ask her to shut down the light bulb she kept on overnight above her driveway door. He alleged it was keeping his toddler up at night. I don’t think it was reasonable to ask a 75 year old woman living by herself to shut down the comfort of a 60 watt bulb in the driveway, really. Neither did Ma.

She nodded when informed of the youngster’s sleep travails, and thanked the neighbor for the information. The very next week, after a visit by an electrician, her driveway was lit up with multiple 150 watt floodlights that sprayed so much illumination her place looked like a POW camp, minus the razor wire and the bark-less Dobermans. Those neighbors irked her so much she put up a laundry line on the thin, heavily shaded strip of property between her garage and their backyard, a place where literally, the sun didn’t shine. Every time those folks launched a barbecue or had some company, her undies would go up on the line. They would stay wet, on the line, all day. Drying them, you see, wasn’t the point.

Our parents live on in all of us, of course. Once, approaching the George Washington Bridge in heavy traffic, with four lanes squeezing to two, I went Road Warrior on somebody who was trying to cut in front of me. White knuckling the steering wheel, muttering ancient curses, I was on a bumper grinding heading with this guy when my ever perceptive oldest daughter called out from the passenger seat, “Dad, you’re becoming grandma.” I let the guy in.

All of mom’s flinty antics were of course amusing and exasperating until they became serious. As the police chief of her town said to me and my sisters, “We really don’t want to put an 85 year old in jail. But she has to stop.” Ma was pushing it. In the end she was the one who moved.

We had our bumps, to be sure, and long periods of silence as the years wore on, as she got ever angrier at the world and her diminished power over it. Eventually, given the haze of aging memory, she softened a bit, and there were a couple of visits. At almost 97, she could hear and see just fine, and took one aspirin a day as the sum of her medication. What she couldn’t do particularly well was remember.

She had flashes, though. That last visit, I do think she recognized me, if only briefly, and she reached to hold my hand. As difficult as it was, I made a picture.

We talked for a bit. It was nice. As I left, I made this last photo. I guess I just had a feeling.

She’s gone now. True to form, she resolutely refused to share space with my dad, preferring to go with her mom and pop, at rest in the Bronx. The ground there will be richer for her presence, I’m sure. And, if a tree ever grows out of the earth where my mother lays, I guarantee you it will be a tree to be reckoned with.

More tk…..

487 Responses to “Take a Picture of a Feeling…”

Steve says:

on January 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Joe, I was very moved by your story. The images of your mother are very beautiful. I can instantly see the resemblance. Thank you so much for sharing. I don’t think I will ever forget it.

Josh Schrems says:

on January 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Very sorry for your loss Joe. These are very powerful photos.
All the best,

Chris says:

on January 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm


Thanks for sharing such an intimate post, sorry for your loss.


Terry says:

on January 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Im a recent convert to your ways, books and hopefully one day your workshop…..Thank you for a glimpse of light into your personal life and musings about life and your mother.
I often wonder why folks blog personally difficult details of their lives but find myself thankful for the experience that may just make a small endearing change in my or someone else’s life.
Thank you for sharing this gem of your life to be treasured by you, and now many others,
Terry B.

Mario says:

on January 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Like the rest, I’m sorry to hear about how the story ends. I guess I can’t really add much to what’s already been said in that department.

However I will add that you make a truly excellent point. Your post reminds me of another I once read on photographing a funeral.

Most photogs tend to shy away from doing pictures like yours, because as you say, it’s awkward or sad. But in the end it’s those pictures that really hit home, and it’s those pictures you truly come to cherish over time.

This is one of those posts everyone with a camera should have a look at.

David Apeji says:

on January 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm

My condolences. Sorry for your loss.

Lloyd says:

on January 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm

A very honest, powerful and honest post… words and images alike. Maybe your most fundamental, and therefor best ever. Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m sorry for your loss, and richer for your having shared this with us.

Garry and the gang at Contre Jour Studios says:

on January 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Thank you Joe, thank you for sharing this very personal tribute,,,very eloquent and moving. Your photos and words touched each of here very deeply. Our sympathies.

Barbara Molyneaux says:

on January 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm

So sorry to read about your mom. I remember her as a lovely woman with a beautiful smile. You, Rosemary and Kathy were very fortunate to have her for almost 97 years. May your beautiful pictures and memories keep her in your heart.

Gary says:

on January 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Sorry for the loss, Joe. You have a unique ability to get your thoughts out to the rest of us. Reading your post has helped me to understand some of the feelings I had when my mom passed on, and that was ten years ago. Thanks so much.

Rick S says:

on January 20, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Joe ……. your description painted a picture of my own mother, made of nails but with a heart of gold at the core!

I think I will pay her a visit while I still can. Like you I have had spells of silence to subside the ringing in my ears. Who cares, you only get so many chances to say hello!

Thanks for your honesty! I wish you well and know from the recent passing of my own father that time heals sharp wounds. As time passes the grief slowly transforms into the warm glow of the rememberances of better days.

God bless,
Rick S.

copertina says:

on January 20, 2011 at 7:31 pm

I am sorry for your loss. I lost my Mom 157 days ago. She was 62. My thoughts are with you.


Iden Ford says:

on January 20, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Touching and heartbreaking. Mortality is unquestionably one of the most difficult things we face when it comes to the people we love. God bless your Mom and you.
Thanks for sharing Joe.

kdsand says:

on January 20, 2011 at 7:57 pm

My condolences also.

I relate to the loss and situation, my grandmother was also a firecracker.
I believe the photos are treasures.

Take care.

John Johnson says:

on January 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm


I’m so sorry for your loss. Codolences to you and your family.


Jim White says:

on January 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

May God bless and be with you during this time Joe . . Sorry to hear about the loss of your Mom

Lyle says:

on January 20, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Touching tribute to the individuality that is your mother.

Condolences :)

Life is darned short; live with kindness toward all…

I’ve got that picture of my dad, btw.

John S. says:

on January 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Joe, there are times when words are not enough. “I’m sorry for your loss” at a time like this proves this.

Your sharing this very personal story, with strong images and powerful text, enough to bring a lump to my throat, proves what an accomplished communicator you are.

Gary Scaife says:

on January 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Sorry for your loss Joe. Reading this posting sent shivers down my spine.

Daniel Solorio says:

on January 20, 2011 at 9:57 pm


My condolences to you, from the deep of my heart I wish you well. Thanks for open your heart, and let us know more of the big person you are.


Rosanne Aresty says:

on January 20, 2011 at 10:19 pm

These photos are beautiful and it inspires me to keep going on. I suspect your mother was, as they say, “A tough Irish broad.” So is mine. What will we do without them? She will always be with you and the tenderness in these photos speak for themselves.

Derrick Nguyen says:

on January 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

My condolences and prayers to you and your family Joe. I am reading your blog and looking at the pictures you took of your mom while I am taking care of my own father here in the hospital. It’s such a wonderful thing what you’ve captured. I will follow your footsteps and take a picture with my dad here at the hospital before it might become too late.

God Bless,


Roger says:

on January 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe, I envy you. You were lucky to share such a wonderful moment we are all not as fortunate. I wished I would have had that feeling to have captured such finality and closure with my Mom. I lost her when she was only 57. My condolences for your loss.

Ingoman says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:07 am

Joe I’m so sorry for your loss. Your words and pictures made me even tearing up. That has never ever happened due to a blog post and very seldom in general. I don’t know why but I guess it’s because I spent too less time with my mom. Need to change that.
Condolences to you and your family.
Best regards
Ingo (and Carmen)

Daryl Chan says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:18 am

Sorry to hear about your mom. Moms are always special no matter how fiesty they are. Glad you took the moment to record those visuals.

Bless you.

Stephanie says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:50 am

Hi Joe,
So sorry for your loss, thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us.

I did not have a feeling and I wish I did.

A wonderful 16 year old boy who called me ‘Mommy’ invited us to his soccer game a few weeks ago and I picked up the 400mm lens that I had not used for a few years.
I was so proud of him and I shot many images, smiling when I realized that I was shooting every expression and motion as I got back into the fun and excitement of shooting sports.

I felt guilty for shooting only our boy so when he took a break, I photographed other players, but the excitement was missing; I thought ‘what a proud mama I have become’. I expected to shoot many more games, but two days later, he was gone in a heartbeat.

I have photographed and cried with parents at many NILMDTS sessions, and I thought I really understood the importance of photographs, now I truly do.

I am so pleased that you got a picture of your mom holding your hand, it is a very moving image.


Nate Kinnison says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:56 am

That’s sad Joe, and I’m sure the people who knew her were better for it. My condolences to you and your family

I know that feeling of “I really need to make a picture…right now” very well, and I’ve kicked myself every time I’ve ignored the feeling. I still have three of my grandparents, and all of them are 90 give/take a few years older or younger. I won’t forget one of the last times I saw my Nana with my kids. I shot photos like a motherfucker that day, and it was awkward, but I can’t tell you how much those photos mean to me…of my three year old son resting on her chest in a hug.

Yian Ling says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:58 am

I stumbled upon your site and I am so touched by your story. And impressed by your writing skills! I love the way you write.
Any novels coming your way?

Chris Wheeler says:

on January 21, 2011 at 2:39 am

Dear Mr. McNally,

Thank you for sharing such an intimate time in your life and such a powerful story. It instantly inspired me and I realize that my lens has only been pointed towards my kids and never really towards my parents. It also led me to reminisce of that feeling to take a picture.

My condolences,
Chris Wheeler

Tim says:

on January 21, 2011 at 6:05 am

Thank you for your inspiring words, letting us into your life and for all that your posts and books have taught me. My condolences to you, and your family. After losing my mother in 2008, I never really considered picking up a camera during her illness, but now i realized i should have. You truely are a role model and inspiration to all aspiring photographers and seasoned vets alike. Thank you again for sharing your story.

Brian says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:01 am


My sincerest of condolences on your loss. May she remain close in your memories.

Alex Kaiser says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:01 am

Dear Joe,
Just read about the loss of your mom.
Thank you for sharing this story and pictures with us.
My condolences, to you and your family,
Alex Kaiser

Elis Alves says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:17 am

Hi Joe,

I just saw your blogpost about your mom and I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for such beautiful pictures and honest words. May God comfort you in your loss in the days ahead as the truth of her passing sinks in.

Nestmac says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:30 am

Hi Joe,
I’m so sorry for your loss. I know what it feels like to loose a parent. I loss my father 2 years ago, after a battle with heart failure. It was Christmas time and after his death the christmas haven’t been the same. Life goes on and we have to re-evaluate our purpose in life and go along with it. Thanks for sharing such a private story and awesome images.


Sherried says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:53 am

Thanks for sharing the stories of your mom. Thoughts and prayers are with you.

Alex Racanelli says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

Hi Joe,
I am so very sorry to hear of your mom’s passing. The story you told was touching and revealing and I thank you for sharing. Your way with words are as deep as your images. Joe, you inspire me to be a better photographer and more importantly, a better person. I’ve seen you twice in person in a workshop setting and loved it!

My condolences,

Dave D. says:

on January 21, 2011 at 9:18 am

So sorry for your loss, Joe. Your very heartfelt blog was well written and touching. May those memories of your mom give you comfort. DTD

Martyn Dews says:

on January 21, 2011 at 9:52 am

Hi Joe,

Sorry to hear of your loss. A very powerful and touching story. Your mother sounded like quite a woman. The 3 pictures in the blog say so much more than the words on their own.

Thanks for sharing.

Christina says:

on January 21, 2011 at 9:59 am

Oh, My~ I know this woman! And you served her well with the words you wisely chose out of pure compassion and understanding of who she was/is for all to see. Your photos complement the very stage of life you see every day in our elderly folk and family if we stay long enough to see them.
Thank you Joe for sharing the complexity of family and love. They both grow on you when you share the truth of what that really is.

Blessings to you and your family. May your Mom live forever in your hearts and many memories of life with Mom.


James Allison says:

on January 21, 2011 at 10:52 am


My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Thank you for sharing this story as it resonates well with me at this time since my parents have had some health issues.

Be well,

bycostello says:

on January 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

sad for your loss but her beautiful memory will live on forever in your heart and in your images…

Ann Lewis says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm


A very moving story, I am so sorry for your loss. Your Mum looks a lovely lady, I’m sure she was very proud of you.

I too have that feeling with my Mum. She’s still with us but doesn’t appear to know me anymore. She has Alzheimer’s.

Your story says to me “I must take a photo before it’s too late”.

Take care

Derrick says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Hi Joe,
I wish and pray for all the best for you and your family. And thank you for a reminder of how inimitably powerful a photograph can really be.

Brandon Burnett says:

on January 21, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Sorry to hear of your mom’s passing. I’m glad I was never her neighbor ;-) , but I’m very glad the world had her because she raised a great son. Once again, I’m inspired by your words and photography. Thanks for sharing, and my thoughts and prayers to you and your family.

Martin Tolley says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

You only get one mum. I never managed to make pictures of mine in her last days. I so wish I did. Your post made me cry today.

Jack Flemmings says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Peace be with you and your family. You touched a lot of hearts. My own mother was a redhead Irish woman who spoke her mind and had her own ways about her. I haven’t seen her since 1968. It bought back memories. This post was what art is truly about; to touch someone. God bless……..-jack

Eric Politzer says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Joe, I missed this posting when it came out. I am very sorry for your loss. I loved reading your tribute — she sounds like an amazing person, a wonderful character. Your thoughts resonated with me about my own mom, who died 3 years ago. I am so happy you were able to spend time with her at Christmas — that is priceless.



Skip Barber says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm


My sincere condolences for your loss. I lost both parents a few months apart and its not easy. But, you have the memories, and some great photos.


Gianni Bianchini says:

on January 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Really sorry to hear this Joe,

A big hug to you.


G Taylor says:

on January 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Powerful. Brought a tear to my eye. I teach a photography class for adults and told them about the blog last night. I hope they all got a chance to read it.


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