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Starting Off, Looking Back

Jan 2

In history at 8:39am

2012. Twenty years ago, at this time I was headlong into shooting my first cover story for the National Geographic. Lots of clicks downstream from that now, to be sure. (Most of them, blessedly and appropriately, remain unseen. So many bad frames in pursuit of the few worth spending time with.)  And changes. Man, is that an understatement. High res digital cameras have replaced film cameras. Hard drives store pictures, not little yellow boxes. Kodak’s stopped making carousel projectors. Photographers go to the magazine far less often, given digital transmission. Ties and jackets are seen less frequently.

But, the main mission, over time, has remained. Tell a good story in pictures. The major components–photographer, picture editor, designer, magazine editor–are all still in place, and the interplay among them is ongoing and largely unchanged.

This video looped on a continuous basis in Explorer’s Hall at the headquarters of Geographic for many years, and was seen by lots school groups, tourists and visitors. Geographic graciously gave us permission to put it on the blog. It’s a fun interior look at how the magazine puts a story together, if you can stand the time warp and the truly embarrassing haircut I had back then.

Here’s the funny thing about persistence. Bill Douthitt and I are still at it. We start another story in a couple of weeks. Like unruly children, we refuse to pipe down or go away. Bill continues to shape coverages as only he can, and his warped brilliance remains a lifeline when things don’t go well in the field, as is often the case. (He won a Picture Editor of the Year award for his efforts on the sight story. And in the video, he actually appears rational.)  The upper echelon of magazine management is all different now, of course. Bill Marr art directs the look of the book. And the shop is run by a photographer, Chris Johns, which is appropriate, given the pictorial bent of the magazine. As a shooter, in the field, he turned a two lane strip of pavement into one my favorite stories ever published in the magazine–The Hard Ride of Route 93.

The people change, but the pictures remain. I look forward to shooting some more of them in 2012.

More tk….

90 Responses to “Starting Off, Looking Back”

Alan West says:

on January 3, 2012 at 5:29 am

Thanks for sharing Joe, very informative.

Bryan says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

look’n good Joe. how 20 years makes a difference to the process and just how much remains the same hay? i enjoyed the story and seeing the process, thanks for sharing and all the very best for 2012

Tom says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:31 am

I don’t know. The voice is familiar…..

I remember 20 years ago, photographers in London would conduct all assignments dressed in good suits. I have a photograph of myself in the middle of a riot, dripping from head to toe in paint someone had thrown, otherwise still looking immaculate.

Rich Cave says:

on January 3, 2012 at 8:08 am

Film, brings back memories,

shot an airshow with the F5, remembering changing film 36 times during the course of the event, nothing better than reviewing all those negs on return.

Digital is easier for confirmation but I miss sitting at the table of death with a picture editor. Just wiring it in is not the same, and you develop faster as a tog when you have to face the dreaded editor.

The video shows how much of a collabrative process it should be, with the net that collabration has become impersonal and lost. I remember some quite heated debates on images going through. I miss that.

Thanks for sharing, and as for the haircut and tasche, no mention of Boogie Nights will leave my lips, woops!

Rob Hammer says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:38 am

What a creepshow with that mustache! Haha. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Javier Montero says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:43 am

Fantástic video!!!
Thanks again Joe….you are a master!

MikeScott says:

on January 3, 2012 at 10:38 am

Thanks, Joe. But enquiring minds want to know – what’s the theme of the story you’re about to start shooting?

James says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:29 am

Who knew that Andy Richter was an editor at NG in a former life. That’s a great video. Very Interesting to see how it works – more interaction than I would have realized.

Kenneth Barney says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:31 am

Thanks Joe for sharing! I grew up in the 60′s and 70′s waiting for the next issue of NatGeo, though my father never tripped a shutter, he was always amazed at the beautiful photos found in those pages and as a young boy the magazine was my way of discovering the world and the more i discovered the more i wanted to photograph it! To this day I can’t wait to get my next issue and see where the photographer will take me.

Mitch Alcala says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

Thank you for sharing Joe, me being a young photographer it’s just great to see how it was once done. Also, really think you should grow out the mustache again… that was pure style.

David K says:

on January 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Joe and a ‘tie’. WOW, times they are a changing. What a wonderful exposure to the behind the scene environment in the mag world, especially from the best in the business. Thank you and NatGeo for sharing.
Happy New Year.

Diego James Robles says:

on January 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I don’t know what I was expecting but when I saw the images, I was blown away. That magazine piece came out really nice Mr. McNally.

Gordon Schmidt says:

on January 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm

That was William H. Macy, wasn’t it?

Fascinating behind the scenes view of one of my favorite magazines. 1,200 rolls of film, 40 pages, 80 shots. What an epic project! That’s a lot of little yellow boxes! Thanks for sharing this Joe. Always love your work.

Happy New Year!

Ron Hiner says:

on January 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe! The tie and the haircut (and that beautifully tailored jacket) are long gone, but the story still stands strong to this day. Work like yours and Bill’s are the very reason people keep shelves and shelves of Geographic for years – and even generations.

Blaise says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Wow – fantastic.
This video really hit me. First seeing you 20 years younger – time flies… Then the enormous amount of work that goes into a NG story – mind boggling. The frustration of having your stories and photos cut down. The effort required to convince everyone of the quality of your photos. The teamwork.

This is a whole new area of photography. Do things still work like this in our blog world, where it’s shoot, quick select and post?

M.D. Welch says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Thanks for sharing the video Joe. Always wondered about the process.

Happy New Year.


P.S. I loved you in Super Troopers!

Mark says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Really enjoyed the video! I’ve heard you speak in person, and here you look and sound a lot like Matt Damon for some reason heh.

LoriW says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You rock, Joe! (The video makes me want to go out and create.) It’s wonderful to see talented individuals working together on a project.

MGA says:

on January 4, 2012 at 12:50 am

Wow thanks for the trip…

Hair Rocked…the mustache…the mustache…the mustache…

Nate Parker says:

on January 4, 2012 at 6:47 am

Awesome! But so funny for the styles and fashions, HA! I had one of those haircuts too, and those dumb striped shirts and the suits, man, so many bad looks. And so many amazing images and an amazing organization, thanks for the inside look!

Huong Bui says:

on January 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Your article says that you have more pictures taken that are kept rather than seen. Maybe you think that they are not worth to be published.
I am a hobby photographer using a Nex system. Sometimes I publish on flickr what I think is a “great” picture and no one comments on it. Other times I publish a “lousy” picture and a lot of people comment on how great a shot it was.
Sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe I have a different take on what is a “great” shot.

Have you ever have not same situation?

John says:

on January 4, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Amazing how far we have come in 20 years. Most of the really important things remain the same.

vincent says:

on January 5, 2012 at 4:19 am

it takes awesome pictures like Joe.
it talks like Joe.
it sounds like Joe.
it looks like J. Jonah Jameson, editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle in the Spiderman comics. ;)

thanks, much enjoyed the video!

James says:

on January 5, 2012 at 10:46 am

Love the suits Joe! Thanks for sharing!

Jef Gibbons says:

on January 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

Amazing video, I remember that magazine!!! Looking forward to learning from you this weekend in Vancouver!

Jeb says:

on January 5, 2012 at 9:53 pm

I would love to see a video of the same process today. Those sessions held in the dark, staring at a projection — it reminded me of film executives watching dailies. Does a version of that still occur?

Aaron @ Become A Photographer says:

on January 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm

That was definitely a look back in time. Hard to believe that was only 20 years ago. But it was very cool getting to see you out there doing your thing.

Glad you were allowed to share this video with us!
Take care, Aaron

Ron Gergely says:

on January 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

That’s before I got into photography Joe. (Although I’m old enough to remember 20 years ago.) It was interesting to say the least how the analog work flow was done from shooting to publishing. Not to mention a cool time piece!

You are without a doubt one of my photo heroes.

Ron Gergely

René says:

on January 9, 2012 at 8:21 am

Excellent video Joe! Thanks for sharing… and Matt Damon won the McNally look-a-like contest! Incredible the similarity!

Steve E Miller says:

on January 20, 2012 at 1:56 am

Joe, wow, what a wonderful video! I loved the way that you, your photo editor, your designer, your editor all worked together in such concert!
Also love the ‘stache :)

Cheers and thank you!


Aaron Babcock says:

on January 24, 2012 at 3:02 pm


Thanks for posting this. I remember this cover and the story. I was really getting going in photographer as a senior in high school and I remember looking at this issue countless times. Funny, how I even recognize the illustrations. What a great trip down memory lane. It’s a testament to a great career. You’re fortunate to have these reminders. Thanks for sharing with us.


Brian says:

on January 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I couldn’t help but notice at the end when you say “I’m happy”, you don’t sound happy at all. You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself you should be happy–40 pages is more than any other magazine would allow, etc. I would guess you were looking forward to having more creative control.

Lashon Liljenquist says:

on February 2, 2012 at 7:10 am

Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss problem? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

andrea says:

on February 2, 2012 at 11:33 am

Matt Damon, totally.


on February 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Great video. One thing I figured out during the video is that it sure helps to have the name Bill if you want a job at Geographic! Allen, Marr, Douthitt, & Graves!

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