Imaging Personas Redefined: Tamara Lackey Interviews Joe McNally

February 9, 2016

By Laura Brauer

Tamara Lackey—photographer, author, program host, Nikon USA Ambassador and co-creator of the eco-friendly Lush Albums—interviewed photographer Joe McNally, whose career spans almost 40 years and 60 countries. Both photographers will be speaking at WPPI in March.

Tamara Lackey: For all your seriously impressive accomplishments, accolades and experience, you are also a very approachable, down-to-earth guy. Was that ever a conscious decision? Or simply you just being you?

Joe McNally: It’s pretty much me, I think. If I ever copped an attitude when I was growing up, my mother would box my ears pretty good. And in high school I had the Irish Christian Brothers, who would discourage shenanigans and character flaws with a hard right cross.

My first jobs in this industry were at a big NYC tabloid daily paper and the wire services. No room for attitude there, at all. Incurring the wrath of a NY wire service editor on deadline was definitely a bad move.

To me, photography has always been an exercise, first and foremost, in human relationships. No matter how fast the photo session, the more grounded and approachable you are in encountering your subject—be they masters of the universe or the grandmother of the year in a small town—the better your pictures will be. It’s pretty simple, really. Be decent, friendly, curious and respectful. Works most of the time.

TL: You’re on a plane and your electronics are dead. You’ve read the magazine, you have no book or notebook, there’s no TV, and you’re not tired. What do you find yourself thinking about?

JM: How to do my next picture or a future project. I’m a great daydreamer. Staring out the window to me is very constructive time. I bounce off the walls of my own imagination and, every once in a while an idea gets dreamed up that actually becomes a picture.

“To me, photography has always been an exercise, first and foremost, in human relationships.” Photo © Joe Mcnally

TL: How did you propose to your lovely wife, Annie Cahill?

JM: I proposed in Ireland. I was crazy in love with her and I got a ring and kept it hidden in my bag as we both traveled over there to teach a workshop. We had a great time, teaching with the legendary Irish writer Frank McCourt. When we finished, we had a couple days off in Dublin. I chose this place called the Meeting of the Waters, near the little town of Avoca, south of Dublin, and got a car, a driver and a picnic basket. Annie was perplexed but thought we were just going shooting for the day. Even now, she says she had no clue as to what I was up to until I knelt down next to her on the bench where we were sitting, near the water.

At customs on the way home, we encountered a female officer who looked a bit stern, so I volunteered that I had asked Annie to marry me in Ireland, and Annie then showed her the ring. She looked at me sideways and said, “You asked her to marry you in Ireland?” “Yes ma’am,” I replied. “That’s points. Go ahead.” She didn’t ask us any further questions.

TL: What did you almost give up but didn’t?

JM: I almost gave up photography. In the aftermath of Ground Zero [and “The Faces of Ground Zero—Portraits of the Heroes of September 11,” a collection of 246 Giant Polaroid portraits shot near Ground Zero in a three-week period shortly after 9/11], we had no work. It was a desperate, down time. My sisters chipped in to pay a lawyer/work counselor to sit down and advise me on a different path. He kept offering suggestions about how to parlay my meager skillset into a new endeavor. I listened, and as he was telling me what I should be doing, I once again realized that I was doing the only thing I knew and loved doing. I thanked him for his time and went back to the studio. It took years of shoulder-to-the-wheel effort to pull us back up from drowning in debt, and Annie was unbelievable during this time. We eventually got back to a place where we could breathe, and, lo and behold, I’m still a photographer, which I’ll be until they put me in a box.

TL: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?

JM: It was from my wife. She was on the set with me doing a small video, and I was acting out in usual fashion, making jokes and impressions, none particularly good, but amusing to a degree. The PA on the set got exasperated at one point and looked over at Annie. “Is there an off switch?” she asked. Annie shot right back: “I’ve never looked for it.” My honey!