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Archive for June, 2011

I Did Know Jack…

Jun 9

In history at 7:56am

At least a little. LIFE was interested in the whole issue of assisted suicide, so they sent me out to Detroit to sort of live there. Dan Okrent, a rarity amongst editors in that he was remarkable with both words and pictures, gave me very sparse directions. “Go to Detroit and get Kevorkian to like you.”

It’s funny, my feeling is that people outside the magazine business might think assignments for major publications are attended to with lots of planning, forethought, trumpets blaring,  an emergency session of the House of Representatives, a Papal Fiat,  or some sort of whole shebang type of deal. Doesn’t happen that way at all. Many magazine go week to week, month to month on gut calls, hunches, hoped for stories, and reaction to stuff that just plain and simple either does or doesn’t work out. Cut and paste, improvise, and turn on a dime is often the watchword of a pub cycle. Except  of course at the National Geographic, which tends to have life sort of planned out for the next couple of years. At least in the past, there was a certain ceremony to the awarding of an assignment down at the Yellow Border house. It was weighty, ya know? The editor would give you a blessing, recite certain ancient incantations, and you would go forth. (Kidding. Just barely, though:-) All this deliberation was with good reason. Back in the day, virtually every story I did for Nat Geo had a very substantial price tag. The allocated funds bought a lot of Kodachrome, to be sure. Not to mention air tickets, hotels, meals, rental cars, helicopters, fixers, bribes, services of guides, drivers, translators, bush pilots, gifts for locals, and other stuff that ranged from the mundane to the truly exotic.

But LIFE was pretty last minute, seat of the pants journalism, and Detroit has never been accused of being exotic, so without too much thinking, planning or fuss, I just  threw some cameras in a bag and went. I did, I think, get Jack to like me a bit.  Actually, that’s probably allowing too much. He tolerated me. I was, after all, a member of the press, an occupation he was by and large disdainful of, depending on the day, or the nature of the coverage. If he felt criticized in any way, he grew prickly and vituperative. But, for him, I think,  far worse than bad reviews was being ignored. He would rail against the press, and then titter like a schoolkid looking over his clippings. It was this need to be noticed that finally led him to prison, really.

Off and on, I spent about six months with him. It must have been a bit like having a LIFE photographer as a pet, really. I’d just hang out there, and see if he did anything interesting that he would allow me to partake in, photographically. Off the radar, it was obvious he was doing newsworthy stuff. I intersected with him during a time when maids at certain hotels around Detroit would, on a somewhat regular basis, make a housekeeping knock on the door and encounter not a messy room, but a corpse.

I admired him, in certain ways. Love him or hate him, he stuck to his guns in uncompromising fashion, and brought the whole notion of controlling the end of your days into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. (In terms of disclosure, I do feel it is an essential right, when all alternatives are exhausted, and all quality of life gone, to control how and when you turn your last page.) The tough thing with the doc was that he was just generally so difficult, and irascible, that the issues got swallowed up by the controversies over his personality and methods.

The story was never completed. I had to let go, for lots of reasons.

But, I did hang with Jack, ate with him, played poker with him. He was quite set in his ways, across all the activities of his life. For instance, at breakfast, he liked his toast burned. You know, charred. He would shake his head and complain when it came in a less than blackened state. With issues both small and large, he marched to the beat of his own drummer.  He was, quintessentially, a contrarian.

It was in fact at breakfast at a local diner, after we finished the meal, that he summed himself up. We were leaving, and of course, everybody knew who he was. (At the time, he was probably the most recognizable person in Detroit.) A diner waitress, smiling,  wagged a finger at him, and in mock mothering tones, told him, “Be good!” He shot back an impish (some would have said devilish) grin, and said, simply, “No!”

More tk….

That’s LIFE….

Jun 7

In Links, News, Thanks at 6:00am

LIFE.com announced the winners of its’ 2011 Photo Blog Awards, and this little rambling collection of thoughts ended up winning one. Very honored, especially when you look at their roll call of winners….Lens, from the New York Times, Bag News Notes, Time magazine’s Lightbox, and NPR’s Picture Show.

The blog is fun to keep up with, albeit at times a bit daunting. I find myself writing on planes, or airport lounges, or in cars on the way to location. Thank goodness for hot spots! Thank goodness, too, for this amazing adventure. Thirty five years with a camera in my hands, and still going. New Geographic assignment coming up in July, and today, for instance, into NY for an ongoing portrait series on the 10th Anniversary of 911. Stuff just keeps happening, and the blog, for me personally, has become a good way to check my pulse.

Life’s comments on Numnuts….

“The thoughts, notions, and ideas here come from thirty years in the field as a shooter,” reads the text in the upper-right hand corner of this blog, underneath a smiling stick figure and the casual, handwritten words “Meet Joe.” It’s that juxtaposition of the serious and the playful that make Joe McNally’s Blog such a treat. With bona fides from Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and LIFE (for which he was a staff photographer), McNally tells stories and gives advice from behind the lens, pulling from his travels and his vibrant, extensive portfolio to riff on newsmakers (like the Navy SEALs, whom he once followed in training), share deeply personal memories of favorite shoots, and totally geek out on lighting technique and gear (explaining, as only he can, the best clamps, lenses, strobes, etc.). With eloquence, humor, and passion, McNally makes every post a love letter to his craft.”

That is pretty much the way I feel. Still in love with doing this. Still crazy after all these years. Very, very thankful to any and all who stop by for a bit of rambling. Many thanks, and as always, more tk….


An Amazing Night at Adorama

Jun 3

In News at 6:45am

Last night at Adorama Camera in NYC you could get the usual….lenses, lights, modifiers, flat panel TVs, sushi, Heineken, coconut chicken dipped in some sort of cool sauce…..hey wait a minute.

The bash announcing Adorama’s new pro division was a hoot. No way to tell how many people spun through the doors last evening, but several hundred for sure. It was great food, great fun, and I got to see a bunch of shooters who are hard to get caught up to. David Bergman was there, just before he heads off to Europe with Bon Jovi, for instance. He’s been out with the tour  for a while now, living and sleeping on a bus. (He must be crazy.)

Got to grab a pic of a legend photographing a legend. Bill Eppridge, who knows a picture when he sees one, snapped Mr. Mendlowitz, the owner of Adorama. Spoken of in reverent terms, Mr. Mendlowits, or occasionally, Mr. M, is rightfully a legend. He’s built Adorama into a camera powerhouse, largely through dint of being a visionary in terms of the marketplace. He had Adorama positioned, for instance, on this thing called the internet before most folks got caught up to the notion of how thoroughly it would change how we do business.

Now, he’s carved out a section of the store devoted to just pros, and it fairly bristles with pro gear, from stills to video rigs, from hot shoe flash to elegant lighting solutions like Elinchrom, Profoto, and Broncolor. Most importantly, the people in the section know their stuff. Daniel has forgotten more about lighting than I’ll ever know, and Efraim can tell you the SKU of the connector cord that links the flux capacitor to the warp drive without looking at his computer. He speaks, like six languages to boot. And then there’s Annie. In yet another visionary move, Mr. M hired my wife:-) Annie brings her considerable technical knowledge and her force of nature organizational skills to the department, not to mention the legions of shooters she’s helped over the dozen years she was at Nikon.

Just a great night. Pictures, sushi, beer, friends, camera gear, Annie….and outside, New York City, glowing on an early summer night….more tk….

Seal Teams

Jun 1

In In The Field at 5:12am

The Navy SEALs have been in the news a lot lately, something they regard as a dubious blessing, I’m sure. Navy SEAL Team Six went in and dropped a hurt on bin Laden and created a legend. You know you’ve hit the big time when Disney tries to trademark the rights to your team. The Mickey Meisters backed off when they became the centerpiece of virtually every late night comic’s routine out there. It wasn’t a good move. When the troops you can muster on your side have names like Goofy, Ariel and Tinker Bell, you should think twice about messing with the SEALs, right?

I’ve worked out in Coronado with the SEALs a couple times, and was stupefied by the demands, the stress, and the resultant call to excellence. It’s a narrow funnel you pass through as a SEAL, and many don’t make it. I was one of the first journalists allowed to spend all of Hell Week with one class of hopefuls. (As my guide and adviser, himself a SEAL, told me, they had been reluctant to let the press into Hell Week, ’cause they “didn’t want America’s moms seeing what we were doing to their babies.” I gained entree by virtue of being on assignment for the National Geographic, doing a story on the limits of the human body. When you do a story like that, you pretty much have to make SEAL training one of your objectives.)

Just keeping pace with the week photographically was daunting beyond much of anything I had previously tried. I would hump cameras through various exercises and drills at all hours, then go back to the PAO office and grab a piece of linoleum floor and crash. I didn’t leave the base much during the week, and I got so tired that linoleum felt like a feather bed at a Marriott. But all I was doing was carrying cameras. I had breaks, and was often ferried about in a truck while they ran in wet fatigues. What they faced, night and day, was a schedule designed to break them.

That particular Hell Week started on a fairly easy going Sunday, in the very late afternoon. The class was summoned to a general meeting hall, and lulled into a sense of well being by being shown a movie. In the darkened room a DI walked in and started screaming at them to get outside. As they went running out of the room they were greeted with the din of machine gun fire into the air (dummy rounds) and flash bang grenades going off all over the place. The air was thick with smoke, and they were told to run over the berm and into the ocean. From that Sunday afternoon, until the following Friday, they all remained constantly wet.

They generally lose about 70% of the class during Hell Week. It is easy to see why. From Sunday through late on Thursday, they are generally allowed no sleep. They are constantly drenched in salt water, even when on land. Often times, they are actually in the water, and depending on what month your class is going through, the waters around San Diego can range from just plain cold to an ice bath.

During training like this, recruits are organized into boat crews, based on their respective heights. Tall guys with tall guys, and so forth, reason being that they carry their boats on their heads, so everybody’s gotta be in the same ballpark. The short crew generally gets dubbed “The Smurfs.” Interestingly, though, during the week I observed, the shorter crew did very well. In fact there seemed to be no actual body type that would guarantee success. A lot of the bigger, body builder types dropped out. My PAO confirmed that often happens. He chuckled and told me, “Yeah, when you see some of these skinny little guys make it all the way through, you know you got yourself one tough little motherf@##$%!”

One particularly difficult stretch involves a length of time staying afloat in San Diego bay at night, and then laying down, shirtless on a steel pier. From what I was led to believe, while embracing the pier, certain classes have chanted, “The cold steel is sucking the life from my body. The cold steel is sucking the life from my body.”

One really tough evolution is through an area called “Mud Flats.” Recruits basically have to perform maneuvers in muck so thick it can render them immobilized.

If you screw up, you meet Misery. Misery is a 300 pound piece of lumber emblazoned with the words “Misery loves company.” Boat crews who under-perform, or displease an instructor, do a round with this log.

While I was making this picture, the DI came up beside this struggling recruit and shouted at him, “Oh good, they’re gonna put your picture on the cover of Whiner magazine!” I felt bad, but I kept shooting. They do their job, and, as a shooter, you do yours’.

Protein intake is important, even though guys are literally falling asleep in their plates. The instructors move among them, pushing them to stay awake, and eat.

At the end of Hell Week, a handshake from the Bullfrog, the oldest active SEAL. It is a handshake well earned. In this week after Memorial Day, if it were possible, we should all shake their hand.   More tk….