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A Few Thoughts for the Weekend:-)

May 5

In Uncategorized at 12:05am

Photo by Brad Moore

This is a business of bounces, sharp turns, unexpected events, lean times, occasional joyous celebrations, and bouts of euphoria measured in slices of seconds. No matter what, be it an excellent day in the field, or a humdrum day filing pictures or doing billing, it is punctuated almost incessantly with the intrusive reality of just how difficult this is to do, over the long haul. Wonderful, but tough at the same time.

I’m the last staff photographer in the history of LIFE magazine. I had the job for a brief time in the middle 90′s and I’ve likened it to the photographic equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Intense, exhilarating, wild, constantly ironical, and relatively brief. I have to believe virtually any job in journalism nowadays is replete with almost daily irony. My boss when I joined the staff, a truly wonderful editor and wordsmith, and one of the few editors in the history of Time Life magazines who really, truly understood the value of pictures, stopped by my closet of an office at one point to tell me he was heading off on a corporate junket. Private jet to Ted Turner’s private island off the coast of Georgia, and in the middle of the this executive conclave, another private jet to Atlanta to watch a Braves playoff game from the luxury boxes. He looked at me and said, “And Joe, can you guess the reason for the meeting?” I answered without hesitation. “Cost cutting and layoffs?” He winked and nodded.

My own personal bit of irony occurred in my last year at the magazine. I won one of the first Eisie’s, for Journalist Impact, for a story called the Panorama of War, all shot in various stressed places on earth, all done with a 617 Panorama camera. (This and $2.25 gets me on the NYC subway system.)

I went to a swell party, and got a $1500 check and a sculpted Eisie eye. I thanked all concerned from the podium. The ironical part of all this was that during the week previous to the photo fete, I had been fired by LIFE. Shown the door, exited. Thanks for playing. At Time Warner, you are actually not fired. They refer to it as a “reduction in force,” or, “riffed.” I got riffed.

It was okay, actually. In my last year at the magazine, I got my kid on the cover! I was told later it didn’t do well on the newsstand but that was dad’s fault, not hers.

Cool. Once a freelancer, always a freelancer. Back on the street, once again jobless, which is a condition that has existed pretty unremittingly for me for over thirty years. I occasionally send in notes to the alumni magazine at Syracuse University when they send out missives requesting updates on the no doubt sterling state of their graduates’ careers. I simply say, after thirty plus years, Joe McNally is still jobless in the New York area.

At that point, though, I had to dig in, re-direct, and find work.

Point of the parable? No matter who you work for, LIFE, Time, the East Bramblebrook Daily Astonisher, your own blog about your own life, or just your Facebook page, you are working for yourself. You cannot take a camera in your hands and hope somebody just pulls you along. You can never feel safe, or self satisfied. If you predicate your sense of self worth, or self esteem, or fulfillment as a shooter on what somebody else does to and for you and your pictures, you will be miserable, ‘cause no one—certainly no publication—will treat your stuff the same way you would. If you hit a patch of easy street where some editor thinks you are world’s greatest picture maker and lavishes praise, high paying gigs and first class air tickets upon you, know that the editor in question will be fired.

Whatever good thing you have going as a shooter, understand this—it will evaporate, deteriorate, get worse, or just shrivel up and blow away.

Fun, huh?

The life of a shooter is driven by passion, not reason. This is not a reasonable thing to do. A colleague I know offers this advice: “If you want to do this, you have to make uncertainty your friend.” Indeed, you do.

In this life of uncertainty, it is, however, absolutely certain that some shit’s gonna happen to you. What follows below are some notions on coping.

If the angels sit on your shoulders on a particular day or job, and you knock it out of the park, feel good, giddy even, but get over it. Tomorrow’s job will be on you like a junkyard dog, and will tear the ass outta your good mood in a New York minute.

If you win a contest, appreciate it, be gracious, and give thanks to everybody involved, especially your editor and the magazine, even if they had nothing to do with it and actually did their level best to obstruct you at every turn. Contest wins give a warm fuzzy feeling inside but shrug it off ‘cause tomorrow you still have to put on your pants and go find work.

Understand that the money monitors who show up at these contest driven rubber chicken dinners and breathlessly exclaim, “Love your work!” while shaking one of your hands with both of theirs’ are simultaneously eyeballing you and wondering why you cost so much money and there’s lots of pictures out there for free nowadays and why aren’t we using them? Smile back, and be thankful to them that for a brief interlude, they lost their sense of fiscal responsibility, and somehow you got a bit of budget to do something that was terribly important originally only to you, but because you executed it with such passion and clarity, it has now become important to lots of people, given the impact of your photos.

Know that whole bunches of folks will try to take credit for everything you just did. It’s okay. You got a chance to do it.

Understand that in the world of  content-desperate big publications, and the multi-nationals that own them, that next year’s contract will be worse than this year’s. And if the contract is real, real bad, they might actually hire somebody to come in and explain why it is “good for you” in so many ways. Know that the phrase “good for you” is interchangeable with, “you’re screwed.”

(Recent update on that type of language. Lots of contracts now are accompanied by language that state that what’s being offered is in keeping with “current industry standards and norms.” For the translation of that, see the paragraph immediately above.)

Know there will be days out there that feel like you’re trying to walk in heavy clothes through a raging surf. The waves knock you about like a tenpin, you have the agility of the Michelin Man, and you take five steps just to make the progress of one. The muck you are walking in feels like concrete about to set. Even the cameras feel heavier than normal as you lift them to your (on this day) unseeing eyes.

There will be these days. You must get past them with equanimity and not allow them to destroy your love of doing this. Know on these days you are not making great art, and that every frame you shoot is not a shouted message of the truth that will echo down the corridors of time forever. You are out there with a camera, trying to survive, and shoot some stuff, however workmanlike or even outright mediocre, that will enable you to a) get paid, and b) live to fight another day.

There will be times when you cannot pay the bills. You look at your camera and desperately wish it was an ATM or the stock portfolio of a far more sensible person. Have faith. Return your phone calls. Keep shooting, if only for yourself. Actually, especially for yourself. Use this work to send out reminders that you are around and alive. Stay the course.

Love this fiercely, every day. Things change, and generally for the lonely photog, they don’t change for the better. What you are complaining about today, after the next few curves in the road you’ll recall with fond reverie. “Remember those jobs we used to get from the Evil Media Empire wire service? The ones where they paid us 50 bucks, owned all our rights, and we had to pay mileage and parking and let them use our gear for free? Remember those sumbitches? God, those were they days, huh?”

Remember we are blessed, despite the degree of difficulty. We are in the world, breathe unfiltered air, and don’t have to stare at numbers or reports trudging endlessly across a computer screen. Most businesses or business-like endeavors thrive on a certain degree of predictability, sameness and the reproducibility of results. They kinda like to know what the market’s gonna do. By contrast, we are on a tightrope, living for wildly unlikely split second successes, and actually hoping those magic convergences of luck, timing and observation will never, ever be reproduced again.

We don’t know what’s gonna happen, and most of the time, when it does, we miss it. Or what we think we’re waiting for actually never happens. It’s anxiety producing, and laced with forehead slapping frustration. If we were a stock or a bond, we would undoubtedly get a junk rating. Not a smart pick, no, not at all.

But what a beautifully two edged sword this is! What shreds your hopes one day cuts back, just sometimes, and offers up something to your lens that’s the equivalent of paddles to the chest. Clear! You’re alive again, and the bad stuff and horrible frames fall away like dead leaves in an autumn rain.

At those moments, the camera is no longer this heavy box filled with mysterious numbers, dials and options. It is an extension of your head and your heart, and works in concert with them. Whereas many times you look through the lens and see only doubt, at these times, you see with clarity, precision, and absolute purpose.

Know these moments occur only occasionally. Treasure them. They make all the bad stuff worth it. They make this the best thing to do, ever.

More tk…

(A good deal of the above is reprinted from a book called Sketching Light. I hope the author doesn’t get teed off I swiped it.)

123 Responses to “A Few Thoughts for the Weekend:-)”

Jon DeVaul says:

on May 5, 2012 at 12:17 am

Joe, thanks, believe it or not, you made me feel better…I’m not the only one going through this, although it sure feels that way sometimes. Just hang in there, and I’m sure someday you’ll be successful!! :D

Michael T says:

on May 5, 2012 at 12:52 am

Great Article Joe. Goes to show that life has it up’s and downs , here’s hoping the ups just outweigh the downs :)

Doug Jantz says:

on May 5, 2012 at 12:59 am

This is excellent and I needed it, Joe!! Thanks

Doug Jantz says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:00 am

Excellent!! I needed this right now, thanks Joe!

Alex Zyuzikov says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:02 am

Thanks Joe! I just quit my (very well paying) full-time job to do this full-time and it is a bit scary. Reading this makes me feel a bit better and more prepared for things to come. It’s going to be an adventure, and not an easy one… You are a huge inspiration, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge when you can, I really appreciate it!


Peter Lyons says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:34 am

Joe, thanks… I love what I get to do, but sometimes (like today) curse that I couldn’t have some meaningless job that makes me a shitload of money instead. But tomorrow I’m going to pick up my camera and go shoot more stuff, and actually… I’d rather have it this way. But it really is good to know I’m not the only one who has the occasional doubt or down day.

Joe says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:34 am

This pertains to more than photography…

Alfredo Zulueta says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:38 am

You have been a big inspiration to me, Joe. Thanks a lot!

Kati Decker says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:45 am

First off, thank you so, so much for speaking last Nov in San Diego at Pictage’s PartnerCon. It was such a treat to see and hear you speak. I’ve been a fan of your work for a very long time. Being one of the many many people in NYC on 9/11, your project for Time makes me cry every time I see it in gratitude for those men and women’s recognition.

I’m a wedding photographer. I did not in a million years think I’d be a wedding photographer, but here i am. I grew up on NatGeo, war stories from both of my grandfathers and was convinced I’d be a war photographer (at the very least some sort of amazing photojournalist). I’m happy to say I didn’t go that route, although some day’s I am sad at how my life turned as well. Always those damn “what if’s”. Instead of wars and conflict, I’m a photojournalist of someone’s big day, which is rather important I think, unless they’ve been married and divorced multiple times. :) Your words, though ring true no matter what field you’re in. Doesn’t even have to be photographically related. But in any field which you create something you love. And because of that, they easily cross that line into multiple fields of study and work.

My my father and his father (both amateur photographers) told me, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Now part of that is true. As photography is always about the next job to make the rent, that will always be about working. But ideally, the act of taking those photos never is work. No matter if it’s a job you only took to pay the bills or not. Ideally, if you’ve chosen the balls to the wall photographers life, every shot is special to you in some way. Whether it’s the shot that made the rent of put your kid through college. I believe, and hope, that photographers shoot for the love of photography. not the money, fame, or glory but for the creating of an image that resonates with themselves and those around them.

Thank you again, for posting this, for speaking, and for being a stubborn SOB. :)

Tyson Rininger says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:50 am

I’m going to read this over and over and over again. For the last 25 years of my photography career, there has never been a day when I can fully relax and feel comfortable about where I am. I look and you, your successes, your adventures and drool…a little. Despite the ‘swiping’, I take heart in knowing the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and that we all do this for the passion, not the retirement options.

Thank you for this,

Aaron Aubrey says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:56 am

Thanks Joe! I needed this one today.. my calendar is empty, my last few shoots have been crap, and I’ve been questioning if I can really make a continued go at this crazy gig with a camera.
Living in a city that rains 90% of the year with a billion photographers has really been getting me down lately, but your post has reminded me of why I do this, and to just keep on keepin’ on!


Hamidi says:

on May 5, 2012 at 2:00 am

The first look on the top picture, I thought that was The Naked Cowboy in New York City, and I took a second look, it was YOU! LOL!!

As always, great article and I enjoyed reading it! Oh, I need that cough syrup, Joe!

Anthony Richards says:

on May 5, 2012 at 2:21 am

You know… I think tomorrow I’m going to go shoot something for me. No deadlines, no volunteer duty, no stress. I’ve found a new little place down by the river I think needs some attention. Thank you, Joe. These one’s are for me, for you, and the rest of us who love seeing and sharing the thrill and beauty around us.

catalin georgescu says:

on May 5, 2012 at 2:39 am

Completely perfect. You said everything that needed to be said and I wanted to hear.

I might just print this and reread it once in a while.

Scott belzner says:

on May 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

Awesome read. Really does apply to most photographers out there who make a $ using there camera.
Well.. Think they do

Daniel Lane says:

on May 5, 2012 at 2:54 am


Thank you for this. I have been in a slump and have actually had the thoughts of selling my gear off and getting back into the corporate world. Giving it all up so my land lord will stop asking me when I will be paying the rent. Wondering if I can afford to eat this week. THinking about some regular clients who have not called lately. They tell me they are going to use the same images for the adds for another quarter to cut costs. Another quarter is a long time. Can I find more clients? I live on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Kauai. Only 64k people live here. Great tourist destination. Great for photography. Lousy on getting paid. I struggle ever day, knowing that my wife is carrying us along at the moment. I struggle to keep on the path and improve my art, my eye, my mind and my heart. “Can I do this?” and “Do I even know what I’m doing?” go through my mind every day. But your words help. Knowing that someone who I respect greatly, and aspire to one day be like goes through these same moments make it a little easier to bear. So I must say Mahalo Nui Loa Joe. A Hui Hou Malama Pono.

Dori Moreno says:

on May 5, 2012 at 3:33 am

Joe, this is a great blog. Thanks, it came at the right time for me, when questioning what the hell I am doing with my life and why I carry on this path of unpredictability. It’s a good reminder to treasure the good moments and keep fighting through the challenging ones.

Nico Chapman says:

on May 5, 2012 at 3:59 am

Fantastic post!

I can’t think what I would do without photography, but have had my doubts about it being a viable career to take the plunge into. However, your words of wisdom will forever guide me through the, hopefully, many years that lay ahead of me in this unstable, unpredictable, nerve-racking, yet, at rare times, rewarding job -if you can call it one.

Joe, thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge once again!


Mako Capulong says:

on May 5, 2012 at 4:42 am

Thanks for sharing this Joe. I’m not a pro but I love taking photos and am constantly trying to learn. I’ve watched a few of your videos from Kelby Training and will probably be watching more of your stuff. You’re an inspiration to me. Just wanted you to know that. What you stated above is an eye opener and will better prepare me since I’m dedicated to learn and improve my photography skills. Again, thanks!

Kees van Surksum says:

on May 5, 2012 at 4:56 am

For some years, I decide to live and work as a photographer. Although I am just a ‘local heroe’, compared to the reputation you’ve got in the entire world, I know what you are talking about. I had to cut of all my life trees fancy branches, just to keep on going. Still there was no single sleepless night since and no pitty for missing anything whatsoever. Following your passion is fullfilling and the best what a lifetime has to offer!

Laura says:

on May 5, 2012 at 5:31 am

Thanks for this bit of “truthiness.”

Benjamin Weatherston says:

on May 5, 2012 at 5:38 am

Thanks Joe, you have no idea how much this helps me. I’m going through a very pivotal point in my life and career right now. Keep up the good work.

Ian Mckenzie says:

on May 5, 2012 at 6:04 am

This should be required reading for all those wannabe’s out there who think that all they have to do is pick up a camera and they’re going to be rich and famous. After 30 plus years plodding away at this lifestyle, I’m amazed at how little effort young kids think they are going to have to put in to just survive.
Like you, I wouldn’t do anything else… dream often about having a 9 till 5 job, but honestly, who in their right mind would want stability and job sercurity. And what the hell would we do with all that spare time
Keep shooting Joe, keep inspiring us all, and lastly THANK YOU.

Sarah Kavanaugh says:

on May 5, 2012 at 7:04 am

Was just reading this the other day and thinking it would be a great thing for a teacher to read to students who think it’s all wine and roses. Then, if they still go into it, you hope they belive it and go into it with open eyes. Or get a steady job and have a really cool (expensive) hobby!

david says:

on May 5, 2012 at 7:32 am

Thanks for the re-assuring reminder that there is always an ‘up’ even if we can’t always see it right away.When you are struggling to get started, it is especially important to keep in mind.

Cheyenne Beisiegel says:

on May 5, 2012 at 7:51 am

This made my day ! Thanks Joe !

Richard Budd says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:16 am

Thank you so much – made my day in so many ways you’ll never know. xx RB

Michael says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:28 am

Thank you for this. Came to this deal late. Will likely stay until the ground and I meet up for the last time. Maybe I’ll figure out how to light something between now and then. But for me the truth of its, telling the story is worth the price of admission. You do it better than most. Thank you for that, as well.

Ruliyanto says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:36 am

Thanks Joe …

Bob says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:38 am

best post ever…and best image from Times Square…well, maybe second best after the sailor’s kiss…thank you for making my day…again.

Brian Preusser says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:54 am

If there were no bad times, how would you know the good times are here?

Bill Griffin says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:59 am

Geez Joe…… you sure think about stuff!!!

Great points to live by.

Lyle says:

on May 5, 2012 at 8:59 am

Most people’s lives are like this. Take a breath and carry on…

Ted Morrison says:

on May 5, 2012 at 9:10 am

“To be a professional photographer, you must embrace a life of uncertainty.”

Alan MacRae says:

on May 5, 2012 at 9:34 am

Joe, as always, you are such an inspiration. Thank you for posting this. Like some of the first commenters, and like the kid in the old Campbell’s soup commercial, “Thanks, I needed that!” Hope you’re enjoying your trip “down under” Cheers, Alan

Juan C Ettedgui says:

on May 5, 2012 at 9:41 am

An that day, in the city of NY, Joe Mcnally spoke.
Thanks for the wake up shake and the inspiration time and again,

Andy Blau says:

on May 5, 2012 at 9:43 am

Thanks Joe. As you know I quit a great gig at Time Inc. where I was the one saying “do this, it will be good for you” to great guys like you. Having been bitten by the photo bug I went a different route. Since I have no talent as a photographer but love photography I decided to launch a photo site. And, being in business for one month and waiting for the phone to ring or the email to chime to tell me I made a sale is not that different than waiting for your next assignment. Your missive was really uplifting in that it made me realize that we’re all playing the same game and its always tough. And, you’re right your sense of self has to come from within. Bravo! By the way, for those who don’t have any idea what “TK” is, its an old publishing acronym for “to know”

Linda Brinckehroff says:

on May 5, 2012 at 9:53 am

“The Last Lecture” for photographers.
Joe, you are always so eloquent and always a MENSCH.
Thanks for the encouragement .

dagomatic says:

on May 5, 2012 at 10:09 am

…holy shit that was good to hear…thanks joe.

Cara Renee says:

on May 5, 2012 at 10:10 am

Great article and perspective… I always learn so much from you!

Amryl says:

on May 5, 2012 at 10:20 am

Such passion can be addictive Joe! I love it!!

William Beem says:

on May 5, 2012 at 10:21 am

The parable applies to more careers than photography. Back in 1981, I thought I was going to be a photographer, but got misdirected into a long career of IT because of a fascination with personal computers. It certainly did a nice job of paying the bills most of the time.

Not all of the time, though. I spent time as a freelance writer and that was great – for a few years. Back to corporate life and I’ve been through two layoffs from higher-ups who were more fascinated with their own well being than mine, naturally. The last one was six months ago and I’m once again trying to build my own business out of the ashes. Why? As you said, you’re always working for yourself. It makes no sense for me to put my fate in the hands of others and hope for the best. That doesn’t mean I may not take a day job for someone again at some point in my life. It just means that I know all too well that the notion of spending a career with a single stream of income is a fantasy from a past era. You gotta look out for yourself.

Barry Kaufman says:

on May 5, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thanks for just the right words at the right moment JM.
At least a daily ration of shit sandwiches, comes with your choice of condiments (usually)

Needed that bit of encouragement and mindfulness you so eloquently proffered today. You are right. Today is going to be a good day!

Your former brother-in arms at ABC network.

Barry Kaufman

Paul Harris says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:05 am

You have integrity, thats your problem, got to smile and play both sides of the fence, ratlike cunning,thank you Mr Murdoch !, I have admired your work for years and wondered how you survive, now I know its the same struggle but you remain a photographer of quality, integrity and ideals, I went plop into the sewer a long time ago !

Don Flory says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:13 am

This post works on so many levels it is unreal. To other photographers it is an inspiration, a reason to keep on trucking, and not give up in the face of adversity.

As a marketing piece it is brilliant. You have artfully blended a resume of career highlights that formed your education in the school of hard knocks, your philosophy on photography as not just a career but a life calling, and in no uncertain terms let the art buyers of the world know that you will bust your butt and do whatever it takes to produce work that exceeds the expectations of the client in an all out effort to meet your own standards for excellent imagery.

Your journalism background is reflected in your own capabilities as a wordsmith.

Thanks for the inspiration for a whole new direction in marketing.

Don Flory

Randy A. Eckert says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

Thanks Joe. Your work is fabulous, when I need inspiration I watch your tutorials, I truly believe I would have never got away from the fear of using lighting if not for you. I consider you the Master of lighting. As one of my mentors you give me a reason of why I do what I do, to be half as successful as you would be rewarding, Oh hec what I have learned from your training is very rewarding. The article has really opened my eyes, but not changed my direction. I look forward to continuing following your work.


alister says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:42 am

joe thank you for your words of wisdom and the philosophy on our craziness

Cathie of Cathie Heart Photography says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:51 am

Hi Joe, another great post to read during a break and I have to say I love the joke you’ve written in brackets at the bottom :)
Thank you for sharing.

Susanne Friedrich says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:59 am

I love you Joe!

Karen B says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm

You have a wonderful way with words, Joe McNally. For all the times you share your perspective with us on paper and through the lens…BRAVO!

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