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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:-)”

Tim says:

on May 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm

So you couldn’t think of anything new and plagarized from some other poor schmuck?! Enjoyed it. ;-)

Joseph Nienstedt says:

on May 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe – I just read this after my second shoot of the day got cancelled at the last minute. Felt like a total waste of a beautiful day and then I read your post and realized that it’s just the shit that’s gonna happen. I think I’ll drive to the beach tonight and catch a sunset since now I can ;)

amanda reseburg says:

on May 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Joe, yours is one of the only blogs I religiously follow…and posts like this is why. Thank you for all you do for our industry.

Doug says:

on May 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Here’s a thought for you Joe. . . if the photography thing doesn’t pan out for you, you probably can make a career as a wordsmith. . .

One of your best posts ever. . .

John F Hark says:

on May 5, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Great stuff Joe. As always you are a great inspiration. Keep up the good fight!

John Hark

Mike Slurzberg says:

on May 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm

To paraphrase Churchill, photography is the worst way in the world to make a living, except all the others. When your heart decides it’s the only thing you can do, your brain is stuck with it. Extraordinarily well said, Mr. McNally,

Rod Craig says:

on May 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm


Two words…well stated.


Luke says:

on May 6, 2012 at 2:30 am

Fantastic article Joe ! It’s so true not only for photography work but for so many other nowadays.

Julia K. says:

on May 6, 2012 at 4:18 am

Dear Joe, your post comes just in time! Often when I shoot I ask myself, how Joe McNally would shoot this or that thing. Now, when I hear “your work is so great, we must do something together” from the people that never ever call you back I can tell myself “it happened to Joe too… so don’t get desperate and keep doing your best”.Thank you so much for sharing!! Greetings from Italy!

Robert says:

on May 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Good manifest Joe on the first photo;-)

Tom Sperduto says:

on May 6, 2012 at 9:11 am

Really loved this post, Joe. Realistically inspiring.

Bill M says:

on May 6, 2012 at 9:53 am

Thanks for this, Joe. I needed this today.

Kurt Wall says:

on May 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

This is the photographic equivalent of, “Thank you sir. Please, may I have another?!” Great stuff.

Vicki says:

on May 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

I so needed to hear this!
Thank You!

jim says:

on May 6, 2012 at 10:56 am

Thanks Joe for sharing. Couldn’t have come at a better time.
I knew I had read some of this elsewhere, now I know the source some book called Sketching Light. Good source of honesty and information.

Harv.! says:

on May 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Interesting piece Joe.
As a photographer you make a lot of sacrifices, you lose what others call a “normal” life, instead of a new car you keep the old banger and buy another lens, instead of new clothes you get another CF card. But it all makes sense when I look through the viewfinder…well, most of the time it does ?

Mike says:

on May 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Great read, as usual. The poor bloke you stole this from is already used to getting his stuff ripped off – I see he is a photographer (hehe). Great way to plug the book too…now I need to buy this one as well!

I always admire your stories of triumph and defeat in relation to making a living. You have a way of making the whole struggle part of the success, & part of the journey.

adrian de la fuente says:

on May 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Well said Joe.
There are many industries exposed and tossed about in these rapidly changing times. The photographic industry is being particularly challenged. Staying connected with our deep heartfelt passion and a determination to keep it alive is one weapon of advantage the artist has over some.
Keep in coming Joe!

Chip says:

on May 6, 2012 at 8:40 pm

You have no idea how much you mean to many (most) of us. You walk where we hope to someday walk; you shoot what we wish we could (and had the talent to) shoot; you feel the doubts and insecurities we all feel, regardless of our skills. You give us (me, at least) reason to continue. Thank you.

Stephanie Wales says:

on May 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Thank You Joe. I hope you come back to NH sometime soon when my schedule will allow me to meet & shoot with you. Thanks for the inspiration.

Pierre Wachholder says:

on May 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Thanks Joe,

Felt like reading the photographer’s version of R. Kipling’s “IF…You’ll be a Man, my son”


Pierre W

Jan says:

on May 7, 2012 at 3:20 am

Thanks for this. Utterly sad because I just lost 350 pics with fond memories due to a SanDisk Extreme coming physically apart for no reason.

Your article reminded me of the countless shots I did not loose – and they make the momentary depression well worthwhile. So let’s get into the surf in our snowsuits and keep clicking.

oliton says:

on May 7, 2012 at 5:47 am

From the first few words, I knew I’d already read them – I had preordered Sketching Light as soon as you mentioned it. Some wise words from an experienced man. Thank you sir, for boosting my spirit (almost) every time I find a moment to read your wonderful blog.

Carol Davis says:

on May 7, 2012 at 5:48 am

Wow. Thank you. Again, I am reminded why I look to you for inspiration.

..the girl who just wanted her picture taken “with” you at Photoshop World 2012. But “by” you was nice too.


John Wiley says:

on May 7, 2012 at 5:52 am

Joe, this should be absolutely mandatory reading for eveyone who aspires to make a living at photography as well as those of us who have been fortunate enough to do so. Thank you!

Carrie says:

on May 7, 2012 at 6:47 am

I just took my camera off Craigslist and I will try again……thank you.

Tracy Grant says:

on May 7, 2012 at 7:23 am

Joe, I loved this. The last few lines had me teared up! It’s been a rough 2012 so far but your words/thoughts are exactly what I have been feeling. Thank you for the encouragement.
P.S. I am so getting your book for my Birthday this week :)
I have wanted it since it was announced!

David Meyer says:

on May 7, 2012 at 8:22 am

Excellent. It’s a brilliant idea to talk everyday photographer. It gives great hope. I’m still waiting impatiently for your new videos on you tube. Kind regards

Ramkumar Saranathan says:

on May 7, 2012 at 9:01 am

Wow!! Well said in great emotion.. suits for most of the profession in this economy.

Gary Jackson says:

on May 7, 2012 at 11:29 am

Thanks for this article. This is just what I needed after Sundays photo shoot. I am real sure that ISO 640 is not the best place to be on a sunny day with a remote flash. Zero the camera means zero the camera. Just sayin…

michael proulx says:

on May 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

beautiful post. thank you

Tim Skipper says:

on May 7, 2012 at 11:51 am


Though we have never met in person I always refer to you as my mentor. I have learned so much from your books, videos, and blogs that I could never say thank you enough.

These last few weeks I’ve felt the pain of being a photographer. I just learned that an assignment for a record company out of Nashville that the art director was excited about giving me may go to a friend of the producer. I’m thinking “I could be the producer’s friend too, give me their number.” But despite it I got up this morning wrote a new blog and started emailing and calling art directors reminding them, I’m still alive.

I’m glad I took a moment out of my day to read this posting, I need it.

One day I will get the opportunity to meet you in person and I will be able to say thank you and maybe buy you a meal, but until then thank you for your honesty and straight forwardness about our industry and yourself.


Paul Krol says:

on May 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Really good read. Thanks for writing this and sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Randy says:

on May 7, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thank you Joe for reminding me why I have been doing this ‘gig’ for the last 30+ years! Those last two paragraphs tugged at my heart strings . . . I shall forever savor the melody of those words!

Pete Mather says:

on May 7, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I follow everything Joe does and i have read “Sketching Light”. Highly recommend Joes current book.

Esther Beaton says:

on May 7, 2012 at 7:20 pm

What you describe, Joe, can be summed up with one word. It’s the word that has kept me in photography for over 30 years and the one which my mother could never understand: ADVENTURE! The mystery, the thrill, followed by the surprising outcome, is what keeps me salivating for “just one more…”

Charles Haines says:

on May 8, 2012 at 4:11 am

Great article Joe, and perfectly timed. My business is going through a very lean time and my wife just asked why I want to be a photographer rather than getting a full time day job instead. The brain says I’m mad but then I shoot a fantastic, emotional wedding and I remember why I love this job, even if it consumes every spare minute of the day

Alton Marsh says:

on May 8, 2012 at 8:30 am

Sounds rough. Hope you make it!

Oliver says:

on May 8, 2012 at 11:34 am

Hi Joe,

I wanted to “+1″ this post and didn’t see the option. So then I wanted to copy and paste the link, but how do you feel about that kind of sharing? Are you ok with people sharing your post links on other platforms such as G+?

Joe McNally says:

on May 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm

sure oliver…I did link this up over on G+. we’re trying to be a bit more active on that and figure it out…all best, joe

Matt says:

on May 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Just like all the other comments Joe, thanks for the post, I needed that! The analogy about wearing too many clothes and walking against the waves is exactly how I’ve been feeling, but as you said now and again for a fleeting minute it all goes right and all of a sudden your surfing those waves, the good always outweighs the bad, now I just need to tell my bank account that!

Studio Finch says:

on May 9, 2012 at 1:11 am

Wow that felt really good to read. Joe, as always, you’re the best.

Side note – are you doing a flash bus tour again??

Simon says:

on May 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

Joe if you were my dad, I could just imagine being sat down and given that advice over a couple of beers, as I pondered whether to head down the road of becoming a photographer… and I surely would.

Thanks as always.

Michael Fischer says:

on May 9, 2012 at 11:52 am

love this, Joe. Like Tim, I consider you a mentor.. and I’m old. :) To all aspiring photographers, work on the business side of photography at least as hard as you work on the technique side. In this day and age, not having business skills will leave you going into a gun fight with a knife….

Jim Felt says:

on May 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Been at this since the daze of Jim Morrison and Bobby Kennedy. Nikon Fs and Hassie EL/Ms.
Nothing has every changed! Digital and iPhones and blogs have broadened and serverely flattened the market(s) but it still just takes Winston Churchill’s idea: Never Give Up!
Sure, we have Getty and Faux News,and Instagram, blah, blah, blah. But he had Hitler.
Our concerns are pretty petty and if we don’t forget to keep it all in a larger perspective that this is something we both do and must love we’ll all get through.

Nate Parker says:

on May 10, 2012 at 6:38 am

I keep coming back to this Fantastical and bad-ass blog to find more articles like this that you seem to write about 6 to 12 times a year or so: posts that have me laughing out loud then rereading paragraphs with a slack jaw and shaking my head, then maybe getting all teary or whatever, then having a nice fart…? Excellent stuff Joe, in the end maybe I’ll keep my summer cooking job for a long time to come just to not have that kind of Stress! Thanks for another great read sir and have a wicked good day- Nate from Maine.

Gary Hopkins says:

on May 10, 2012 at 10:54 am

This made my day …

Ben Weddle says:

on May 10, 2012 at 2:56 pm

And I thought I was the only one. Truly, it seems as though you’ve written the script for the last 30 years of my life. I enjoy your musings almost as much as your photographs. Here’s to living to fight another day.

Gene Stoegbauer says:

on May 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Great blog and wonderful insights; thanks for being a fantastic role model and inspiration for all us photographers hoping for some level of success.

Renier Jordaan says:

on May 11, 2012 at 3:37 am

Just when the enthusiam wanes along comes this great inspiration! Thank you

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