Joe McNally – Conversation

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Conversation with Joe McNally

 

David Alan Harvey: You and I met because we were in an educational environment, and here we are twenty-five years later in Dubai for a workshop,  and still in an educational environment  and yet earning our living as photographers. Gulf Photo Plus has brought us together again.

Well Joe, I know some things about you. I know you are great at lighting. I know you like to stand up on top of tall buildings!!I know you are a great guy.

But I want to ask you a couple of questions that I don’t know. I don’t know exactly how you got started in photography or exactly where you got started in photography.

Joe McNally: It was accidental, as these things happen. I knew I wanted to be a journalist and so when I was in school I was literally forced to take a photography class in addition to my writing classes. I borrowed my dad’s old range finder camera. It was called a Beauty Light 3 and I did a couple of classes, and it worked for me.

DAH: In conjunction with your writing? Was it going to be supplemental to your writing?

JMcN: At that point I really decided I wanted to be a photographer, which as you know, back in the day, photographers weren’t really allowed to write anything for anybody (newspapers and what not) generally speaking. So, I stayed in school and I did a master’s in photojournalism.

DAH: Where was that?

JMcN: At Syracuse University. And then I came straight to New York City and my first very grand job in journalism was being a copy boy at the New York Daily News in 1976.

DAH: Oh, that would be an education!

JMcN: I ran Breslin’s copy when he was writing letters to the “Son of Sam”. You know, Pete Hamill was writing at the time.

DAH: Oh really? The classic.

JMcN: I used to take the one star, which came around about seven or eight o’clock at night. Tomorrow’s newspaper..tonight.. and I would go to the third floor press room. I would take fifty papers, put them on my shoulder…

I would not go back to the newsroom…I would continue down the stairs and go across to Louis East and then I would just start putting the papers out on the bar because all the editors were in Louie’s and they had phones, so they would phone in their corrections for the two star from the bar.

DAH: That was back when journalism was journalism.

JMcN: Yeah, it was pretty gritty back then.

DAH: Well okay, did you work for a newspaper? Did you shoot pictures for a newspaper after that?

JMcN: Well, I got fired by the Daily News three years in. I was a studio apprentice. I had made it to being what they called a “boy” in the studio. I was running Versamats and processing film for the photographers, captioning, etc. And I learned a lot about the business.

There was a great New York press photographer name Danny Farrell who took me under his wing. He said “Kid, you have any eye…I don’t think you’re going to make it here, but let me show you a few things”. Danny is a great man. He is 82 now…I just did his portrait.

You know, the Daily News kicked me out the door and I ended up stringing for the AP, UPI and the New York Times. That became kind of a full time gig for about two years.

DAH: How old are you are that point?

JMcN: Lets see, that would be late ’70s, so I am kind of in my late twenties at that point. I was born in ’52. And then, all of a sudden, I got this offer of the strangest job you can imagine. I became a staff photographer at ABC television in New York.

DAH: Really?

JMcN: And that was what introduced me to the world of color and light, because I had been a straight up black and white street shooter prior to that, and my boss at ABC looked at me and said:”We shoot Kodachrome. And we light a lot of stuff”. I was thinking at the time ‘I don’t even know how to plug in a set of lights!’. So thankfully, it was a job that routinely expected failure, and I routinely delivered.

As a still photographer for a television network you’re always the caboose of the operation, the last consideration…they are always doing TV first and foremost and you have to try to squeeze your way in to a set, like a television-movie set or maybe on a news set, shooting the anchors. Or shooting Monday night football. And the interesting part about the job, the things that kind of made me think about technique and be a little bit faster on my feet than I had been before is that I had to shoot everything in color and black & white.

DAH: You had to do both. Now these pictures are going as publicity pictures?

JMcN: Publicity pictures, releases to magazines, covers of television magazines, you name it. On the average week I would shoot sports…I would go down to Washington and shoot Frank Reynolds at the Washington Bureau, and then I would come back up and shoot Susan Lucci on “All My Children”. So it was fast paced, and it really got my feet under me in terms of color.

DAH: So you had two cameras… a black & white and a color camera.

JMcN: Yeah.

DAH: Sounds like my worst nightmare.

JMcN: Yeah, sometimes I would have four cameras at a political convention…I did the Reagan campaign, I did the political conventions and such because they would send me out. I would have four cameras and sometimes I would be juggling three ISO’s or what we used to call ASA.

DAH: So when I see you working now and I was listening to you yesterday talking to your students, and I see you working with your assistants…I mean you’ve got a lot of stuff on your mind. But I guess obviously you are used to it. You grew up multitasking.

JMcN: Yeah, kind of. For whatever strange reason I always allude to the fact that I got raised Irish-Catholic, and editors found out about that and so they knew I was intensely conversant about the whole idea of suffering. Being raised the way I was…if a day passes without some largely undeserved measure of suffering, it’s not a day worth living.

DAH: No good deed goes unpunished.

JMcN: Exactly. And then, if you know how to use lights even a little bit, editors sometimes will zero in on you and say “Okay, that guy is lights”. So, I ended up doing a lot of big production work for whatever weird reason. I did these big gigs for Life …They threw something at me once, a hundred and forty seven jazz musicians all at once. Largest group of jazz musicians ever assembled. It was a riff on Art Kane’s photo, “A Great Day in Harlem”.

DAH: Yeah, I remember that.

JMcN: And my boss at Life was a big jazz fan. And so he engineered this massively expensive thing where all these jazz guys came in to New York to recreate that photograph. We even found the kid who was sitting on the stoop in the original Kane photo, and was probably ten or eleven years old at that time. We found him as an adult and had him into the picture as well.

And one of the great honors of my career during that assignment was that they brought in G0rdon Parks to shoot the original scene on the street, and I got to assist Gordon.

DAH: Wow! Were you with Gordon up at Eddie Adams when he was there?

JMcN: Yeah..

DAH: Yeah, because we were all with Gordon there at one point because he came up there for two or three years at one point.

JMcN: Well, that was the great thing about the early days of Eddie’s, because Carl Mydans would come up and Eisie was there. Eisie would go the podium and lecture, remembering f/stops of pictures he had shot about forty or fifty years ago. The guy was just extraordinary. And that I think is why we still remain educators, because we grew up being mentored.

DAH: We grew up being mentored and then I think we started also teaching at the same time we were being mentored. I mean, both things were happening simultaneously I think.

Okay, it would be great to talk about the good ole days. They weren’t all that great, there were some negative things about the good ole days, but we both picked up the sense of an extended family that we have with each other. It’s amazing. I am seeing Heisler and you and Burnett here for example. And plus meeting a lot of new people, but neither one of us seems to be the type to dwell on the good-ole-days. I mean we are in the new days, and you’ve got young photographers, and people who want to move forward in the business, and here you are as the mentor. How do you account for that? What is that? What is that about for you, personally?

JMcN: For me it is a way to give back, to kind of return that educational base that I sprang from. That is certainly it. It is also part of the mix as a photographer. I always tell photographers now, if they ask, you have to have a lot of lines on the water if you’re going to survive. You shoot for sure, but we also teach, we lecture, publish books, do a blog, the whole social media thing…you have to be as broad based as you possibly can.

For example, I’ve got a couple of young assistants in my studio, and I say look, you’re future is very vibrant…a lot of people are saying doomsday stuff right now, but I think the future is vibrant, it’s just going to be very different from mine. Talk about multitasking! They have to be good on the web, they are going to have to know video, audio, all that stuff. They’ll have to be kind of their own multifaceted entertainment-information package. They are going to have to bring lots of skills to the party. We learned how to do one thing well, and that was how to tell a good story with a camera in our hands.

DAH: Right. Yeah, I never worried too much about the technology changes because I could see always that technological change took people out of every business. Look at radio. Television came along and a whole bunch of radio people just immediately died. And then others, like Jack Benny segued right into it. I never worried about it because I figured there was always some new way to tell the story.

JMcN: Exactly. Heisler was here and Greg being as smart as he is said something to me a couple years ago. He very wisely said:”Joe, this was going to happen whether we liked it or not. This whole digital revolution. So either adapt with it and change with it, or we sit at home and get angry”.

DAH: Well that’s right, and besides that you can still shoot film if you want to for yourself and the stories that you want to tell and the ways that you are going to work are the same. And, you’ve been benefited with a lot of things by the digital ages as well. I mean you’re not running Polaroids just now when you’re taking my picture. I mean those good-ole-days weren’t that great.

JMcN: No, there was a lot of hard work! And auto focus came in at about the right time for me and my eyes, you know. Things change and you have to change with it. I look now at the digital technology and the way its expanded and what you can do imaginatively, and I embrace it. I think it’s a beautiful thing.

DAH: Well, everybody is into still photography right now. Everybody is a photographer. It’s a common language, which means you’ve got a lot of people to mentor. You’ve got to be a huge influence. You’ve got an entire audience for your blog, there is a whole Joe McNally fan base out there and picking up all the time because people are really, really interested, and I think lighting is the big mystery.

They can take pictures with their iPhone, they can take pictures with whatever camera right out of the box, but the one thing they can’t do is light stuff. Tell me a little bit about how you look at lighting in the first place.

JMcN: Well, one of the first things I say if I am teaching is you’ve got to think about light as language. Right from the ancient descriptions photography…photo-graphos — the original Greek term — to write with light. Some people are a little surprised by this.

I say “Look, light has every quality you associate with the written word or the verbal expression of speech. It can be angry, it can be soft, it can be harsh, slanting. I mean all those things…it has emotion and quality and character. And you have to look for it”.

One of the things about if you work technically with light, for instance if you experiment with flash, one thing that also develops at the same time is your overall awareness of light in general. Just your sense of light keeps going forward. So the more you experiment, the better you are going to get, and the better you’re going to get with you means your confidence level raises. And if you are more confident you can approach your subject and your subject matter more confidently.

DAH: It’s not just technical because you are telling a story ultimately. You are saying something about somebody by the way that you light them.

JMcN: Exactly. I always say that when you’re lighting something, what you are doing is you are giving your viewer — who you are never going to meet, that person is looking at the Geographic or some web image a million miles away, and is never going to meet you — so you’re speaking directly do that person.

You are giving them a psychological roadmap to your photograph in the way you use light. You’re saying this is important, this is not so much…this is just context, look here, don’t look there. You are not there with your picture. The picture, all on its own, has to speak to them.

DAH: Great. Now that we’ve had this conversation I need to figure out how I am going to light you. I think I am going to use available light.

Well, I think people don’t think about me so much in terms of light, but I always appreciate it because when I was in high school I worked at a studio, so I learned basic studio lighting, and then of course with the studio closed down for the day, I’d make friends with these guys and say “Hey, can I play with the lights after work?”.

JMcN: But your stuff has such a beautiful quality of light. You have feet in all these worlds, you really do.

DAH: Well, I think it is because I learned at an early age at least how to use lights, and I think that helps me with available light because I do look at it the same way you look at light, I just tend to do it with a smaller kit. I am the emergency medical team, you’ve got the whole crew, you’ve got the hospital.

I am the EMS truck out there trying to save a life on the highway. You know, patch it together. You know, put a band aid over the flash, shoot through a beer bottle, do all these things. But it’s still the same thing.

JMcN: Sure. Jimmy Colton, who used to be at Newsweek, which always had a smaller budget than Time but would compete with Time intensively, he would always say that Time was a hospital and Newsweek was a MASH unit.

DAH: I hadn’t heard that, but that’s an exact analogy.

So, I am looking at your assistants who seem to be about thirty years old, and you’ve got one who is moving into your first assistant position, and Drew is moving out on his own…so what do you tell Drew? And what do you tell the readers of Burn Magazine? What is the main thing they need to be thinking about? I know they’ve got to multitask. You have mentioned that already. What is the main thing they need to have going in their head?

JMcN: I think as they take a step into this market place, if you want to call it that, I tell Drew just concentrate on that which he loves, and work will eventually grow to you.

First of all, make it accessible. Too many young photographers think they have to go to Afghanistan to make their mark. I don’t think you have to do that. I think the best pictures live right around you, and are things you grew up with, and are things that you love. And for instance, Drew grew up with rock & roll, and he was a drummer in a band. They actually toured and what not, so he grew up in the world of music and he is absolutely passionate about that. So I said go for it! Do it. No matter the people who tell you, you can’t make a living being a rock & roll photographer…I think you can, because he is already working it in a way that is unique to him, and he is making strides, he is getting success.

The main thing to remember as a young photographer out there is that there is always naysayers, and there is a lot of them out there now, but when you and I broke in there were naysayers as well.

DAH: There have always been naysayers!

JMcN: There are always folks saying, “This ain’t what it used to be!”

DAH: With every move I ever made in my life, even my closest friends would say, “Harvey you’ve really fucked it up this time”. And then, a few months later they would say, “Harvey you’re the luckiest son of a bitch. How do you luck out like that?”. You know, they flip on it. And that is the same thing I tell photographers too. Do what you love, and then let it happen. Somehow it will happen. Listen mostly  to yourself. Even (maybe especially) your closest friends do not really want you to change.

JMcN: It will. And you’ll have to do stuff along the way. To me there is always food for the table and food for the soul. And sometimes, some jobs you’re going to have to do are food for the table.

DAH: Just do it.

JMcN: You’ve got to do it, swallow hard, go make yourself some money, keep yourself alive, so then you can feed your soul. It’s not all like roses out there, that’s for sure, it’s like a patchwork quilt, but you can make it.

DAH: Yeah, well you have and thanks for this conversation. It has been great to see you again.

 

Related links

Joe McNally

Joe McNally: The Estimable Mr. Harvey

 

joemcnally

Joe McNally, in front of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, tallest building in the world, which he climbed the same day this picture was taken.

 

121 Responses to “Joe McNally – Conversation”


  • Kathleen…

    Do you David Foster Wallace? If you do or haven’t read his books, listen to this :)…
    http://vimeo.com/65576562

  • Kathleen…

    Sorry I meant to say… “Do you LIKE David Foster Wallace”…

  • I’ve been using the V1 for most of my work now and one of its benefits is the silent electronic shutter. While they think I’m farting around and busy focusing and working out angles etc. I’ve actually been taking photos the entire time! :-)

    Paul; I watched an Anders Petersen video where he said that he often asks people if he can photograph them (in pubs and bars) and then goes off to chat to others, have a drink etc, without taking any pics. Fairly soon they are back asking him to take the photos; and then he starts working with them.

  • Paul,

    When you interact with your subject you are photographing from the perspective of a relationship, brief though it may be. Something about that is important to you. What you see as a “clinical safe distance” is, i believe, the photographer as observer, deliberately refraining from any role in how the event unfolds. In this photo he does interact with his subject: http://lieutenantuhura.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/hj.jpg

  • Ross. ..
    I listened to that interview also. There were a couple of very helpful ideas. BTW thanks for all your help!

  • Paul

    Interesting that you ask. My daughter went to college where he last taught. Her friends studied with him. I have not read his work but i have given his books to my kids. I’ll check the video.

  • Kathleen. ..

    Yes you’re right, he was pretty close there. Funny if you look at all his Spanish work from the same period he seemed to be always close…

  • No Ross we know you are actually farting……………. Paul too much analysis. Shoot with intent not Hope( nice girl but a bit wayward).

  • Paul

    The video was great..i forgot about the videos you posted when i used to be here at night..they were always worthwhile!

    As far as HCB and Spain..well, the culture is different, you know? Personal space is different. People looking at each other, greeting each other. It’s different than, say England. I was going to write to you about that and what it’s like shooting in Costa Rica, but i deleted the paragraph. Martin Parr said it’s forbidden to have your subject looking at you in a street photo even if he doesn’t know he’s being photographed. So i went back to the street with that mandate hanging over my head and it was ridiculous. People here look at each other constantly. Maybe not in England but they do here. I tossed Martin’s rule book in the recycle bin. The idea of personal space here is 180 degrees from what it is in other countries. Which is also why perhaps i refrain from interacting. I have already been studied by my subject as much as i have studied him. Why engage?

  • Ross: i shoot with cheap Bessa RF’s..loudest shutters in creation..i have to fart just to take attention away from the shutter..and sometimes i have gotten lazy and forgotten and have had to answer to outraged grandmas who have dragged some embarrassed cop into the fray and i have to explain that it wasn’t a shutter going off but the strap lugs clanging against the camera that they heard. Farting and coughing are both better alternatives.

    Imants

    ‘wayward’, now that’s a good word.

    off to slumberland..

    ‘night all..

    k..

  • Kathleen. ..

    I’ve been living in Spain for the last 20 years and I’m married to a Spaniard.
    You’re quite right about how everybody is looking at everybody else it can get very trying. Nothing rarely goes unnoticed out in the street.

  • Imants…

    Bullseye! As usual your perception is spot on. Intent that’s the word. Analysis can run creativity dry.

  • Imants; I thought I’d feed you an easy come back! :-)

  • Ross…

    BW or colour these dsys?

  • Ross I could hear it over the detch

  • IMANTS
    “Shoot with intent not Hope (nice girl but a bit wayward).”

    Good one – putting that into the quote-book….

  • a civilian-mass audience

    “Farting and coughing are both better alternatives.”
    hihii…that’s going into my quote-book!

    back to our regular program:)

  • I’ve actually been doing some serious portrait work in the past few weeks, been to some ugly places. Shooting strangers on the street is one thing, but if you want to get into a person’s life, photograph them in their environment or with objects that are meaningful to them, it’s necessary to converse. I doubt Guilden would live very long with his technique were he entering people’s houses uninvited. And for myself at least, I’ve found that genuine empathy is the best approach. Otherwise, I’m just not one of those people who can convincingly fake sincerity. I suspect you’re similar in that regard, Paul.

    On a somewhat related note, through a series of accidents I was gifted an IPhone 5 and have been using it as a camera. I was so impressed with the early results (before I downoaded and worked on anything), that I thought I’d quit lugging the x-100 everywhere and just use the phone for my walking around photos. But this snapshot portrait (hence the relation to the conversation) I took yesterday has made me rethink the idea. It starkly illustrates the difference between a portrait taken with a good camera and an IPhone in low light (starkly illustrates the difference between a great portrait and a lame snapshot as well, eh?).

    Everyone in NY, btw, should get over to the BMA and see this show. Great documentary photography.

  • MW…

    Yes, I agree genuine empathy is the only way in. I just can’t fake it in anyway at all. I once was asked by very good friend if I would photograph her sister’s wedding and when I was finally introduced to the future bride I took an inmediate disliking towards her. So I politely told both girls I’d think about it, although I had already made my mind up. Of course it never happened but I did finally become the official photographer for my friends wedding, so I somehow did end up photographing the girl.
    Yeah about going into a stranger’s house I suppose you’ve really got to be in control of the situation know the limits.

  • Now that you’ve started playing with the iPhone camera why don’t you join us on Instagram? There’s a whole bunch of Burnians all day shooting images and keeping in contact.

  • There is some confusion here between engaged and unengaged; street photography versus street portraits; documentary and street. Different approaches can be made wherever you are on the XY axis of engagement and documentary. One of the downfalls of being engaged is that it takes quite a while for the subjects to forget about the photographer’s presence, and their ability to go back to being natural, forgetting their social personality, etc.. One of the proofs that the subject has been engaged is the absence of interaction and relationship(s) between those photographed. Usually, upon engagement, the subjects constrict themselves to a studied and serious pose…often gazing to the distance or into the camera with a “seriousness” so much in favour with vernacular street photography these days. David is one of the few who are patient enough to get past that uncomfortable period of personality reversion, and photograph the interactions and relationships which make for a more exciting endpoint in humanistic photography.

    If I take a look at Gilden’s efforts, I see he plays it throughout. Sometimes unengaged on the street; sometimes engaged. In his documentary work – those times he enters his subjects’ worlds – he engages and then begins to work once the people are relaxed. Please see his documentary work in the Haitian hospitals, Plato’s Retreat, “Picnic With Sergey”. Youtube has a great video “Bruce Has a Ball”. In a sense, he can easily go into people’s homes and continue his style. It’s just that he’s not barging in.

    One of my favourite lessons come from Joel Meyerowitz, who states on the one hand the street photographer should be invisible, and on the other the photographer should take ownership of his position on the street, since in a sense he has every right to be there. At first, I read it as two opposing approaches – how can one be invisible and totally open simultaneously? – until I realized that the right to be present IS the way to become invisible. It’s not about being cocky, swaggering or arrogant, but rather just being aware that the photographer is a member of the society he is recording, an equal observer/actor/participant in the dance. I wasn’t advocating fake sincerity above; maybe Michael’s “empathy” is more accurate and appropriate…that was what I was getting at.

  • Geez, Paul..i think you´re 90% there. You acknowledge that you can´t fake the empathy/sympathy. And that´s important to great photos. One has to connect in a real way in literally moments. If you can, as someone mentioned, make that happen with a smile or a simple but sincere complinent like “nice hat”, then that is an enviable talent. But maybe your method will be different. Timing is important. The gender and age of the person is important. Who your intended is with is also important. Each group has its own dynamic and pecking order. Identify the key individual and the red sea of hostility virtually parts and you´re so in you might have trouble ultimately extracting yourself.

    You live in Spain! The expression “La mirada es todo” exists for a reason. It´s incredibly difficult for anglo-saxons (if that´s what you are) to be scrutinized so boldly everywhere they go. (Does that make you want to disappear?) The flip side is that it gives you the right to stare back without breaking any social taboos. Being in a Latin culture is both easier and more difficult to approach people. There´s a natural distrust of foreigners at first but then there is also (at least in Costa Rica) a deep, DEEP tradition of courtesy that makes it very difficult for them to deny a sincere and polite request. But even if they agree they may find it imposible to be real in front of the camera because there is a long held tradition of the proper “photo” face, something as thoroughly lacking in personality and individuality as you can imagine. Getting through THAT barrier might be your greatest challenge.

    Go for it, you can do this!

    Best
    Kathie

  • Yeah, I finally found someone I felt like talking with. At the end I very nearly forgot to ask if he minded me taking a picture of him…
    http://instagram.com/p/ZN7HR5K2BJ/

  • Jeff:

    I was writing my post while you added yours and i didn´t have the benefit of your wisdom. I agree completely with what you say. Which is why perhaps it is so difficult to engage effectively on the street. Ít´s extremely difficult to go from zero to 60 in the time we are generally afforded during a casual encounter. David does take the time to get under the limbo bar of awkwardness. He also has all the resources at his disposal to be accepted quickly where is is via fixers, etc. They get him in the door and the rest he has to do on his own. The photographer´s personality is crucial here.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Best
    Kat

  • Jeff…

    The king of “photographic empathy”probably must be Eugene Richards. (Meanwhile every other blog photography forum on the world, sometimes wide web is talking about which lens or should they but the latest camera to improve their photography. Thank god we’ve Burn and RoadTrips)…

  • Paul

    I didn´t see a pic..only the caption “I managed it” So i clicked on your name and guessed it was the clown pic. Clowns are super hard to shoot because they are always posing. In this photo the honesty is where it has to be (IMO) in the eyes. In this case the clown´s eyes put the lie to the makeup, the costume and the clown swagger, you cut through all of that and got something real. Great job!

  • Jeff…

    I really loved your portfolio from Italy. It especially resonated within me because I’ve seen where you’ve come from photography wise and what you’ve managed with that portfolio. Your work has managed to inspire my own stuff.

  • Paul

    Interesting, i have looked at Jeff’s flickr stream a few times and see street work done in a traditional style, not exceptionally close as a rule. You disliked HCB for keeping a clinical distance but Jeff´s style also seems to be primarily that of an observer as well. Or maybe i didn´t access the correct portfolio (?)

    Ok, well i am out of here.

    have a nice day, all

    Kathleen

  • I wonder where all the Burn women are anymore? hmmm, nevermind..i think i already know…

  • a civilian-mass audience

    yeah,where are the LADY BURNIANS,where KATIEE?…maybe in RIO?…oime…!!!
    I know CANDY,EVA is in our CREW,RENATA,ROBERTA in mission …and I am looking for

    WENDY,AUDREY,KATHARINA,LASSAL,LAURA,LAURAT,FRAMERS,JENNIFER,GINA,LEEEEE,OURPATRICIA,MYGRACY…

    I will come back with more names…oh,yeah,I have my lists…!!!

  • a civilian-mass audience

    oh,and about MR.GILDEN…coolest guy ,hmmm,he refused my ouzo candies…smart move,yeap:))))

    BURNIANSSSSSS,I LOVE YOU ALLLLLLLL!!!

  • CIVILIAN

    You know as well as i do where all the ladies are or should i say, you know where they aren´t. Speaking for both of us, they sure are missed!

    If you happen to know…*wink-wink* any moms among us, please whisper in their ear “HAPPY MOTHER´S DAY!!!” (hint..they MIGHT be lurking!)

    HugZ
    K

  • Ah, deadlines approaching rapidly and I’ve got so much to do, so instead I keep thinking about this conversation. You might not see me round here for awhile after this.

    This photo, which was born of a tangent that was itself a product of a series of accidents, demonstrates Jeff’s point that “Usually, upon engagement, the subjects constrict themselves to a studied and serious pose…often gazing to the distance or into the camera with a ‘seriousness’” Of course I’m not necessarily opposed to subjects putting on their photo faces. Sometimes we can learn more about a person by how they try to present themselves to the world than how they actually live in it. And it can get really interesting, for me at least, when there’s a wide gap between their self-perception/presentation and what most people consider reality. Certainly didn’t achieve that in this photo. Close, perhaps, but no cigar. (There was a photo from the other side that captured what I was after from an important narrative perspective, but there are technical problems with the strobe reflections, plus I left evidence of myself in it.)

    And since I’m avoiding real work, and it’s relevant to Paul’s original question, I’ll tell you the story of how I got to be in that trailer making a portrait of that guy. It started with an uncomfortable confrontation. If the river rose another few feet, the little town he lives in, population 400 or so, would be flooded. His trailer is about 100 feet from the bank, and he had built a kind of silo for empty beer cans outside his front door next to the four wheeler that stood at least four feet high and was probably 2/3′s full. So I took a picture of it and he immediately came stumbling out the door yelling at me belligerently that I could take all the pictures I wanted. So I took a couple of him standing at the door. Then we walked over to talk. My buddy, to my initial horror, asked the poor guy if he’d give us a beer, which took him aback a bit, but proved to be a good move because guys like that always offer strangers a beer. And I apologized, sincerely, for taking the picture of the trailer without his permission. We drank a couple beers and chatted for a half hour or so. At one point I asked him if he’d ever moved away from the area. He said he’d lived in Indianapolis once, but there were so many niggers and Mexicans that he had to fight all the time, so he just moved back home. It may surprise you, but I’ve heard that sentence, or something very much like it many times over the years and understood it’s real meaning. That was when I found my genuine empathy.

    So I went back a few days later with a six pack, a pack of cigarettes, and six or eight of my large color prints. One was of the river that might possibly flood his home, there were one or two more from Rurality, and the rest were of African Americans in New York or freaks from Coney Island. We talked about each one and he was genuinely touched by the story behind the Bronx girl at the bad school, allowing that he wasn’t really prejudiced, he’d just had some bad experiences. Then said I didn’t want to piss him off, and I’d certainly understand if he said no, and that he should say no if he’s uncomfortable, but that I’d like to take his picture. He asked me why. I said because he had character. I hadn’t planned it, but that was the right answer. I took eight photos. The first three are not horrible, the rest he became rapidly more uncomfortable and then said that was enough. In retrospect, I should have slowed it down. And I’ll send him a nice print of this picture. And next time I’m in that area I’ll drop by with a six pack and maybe get a great picture. Or maybe he’s done with it, which would be okay by me as well. I’d understand. And of course there’s a real possibility he won’t be alive. He has Parkinson’s, shakes badly and had quit taking his medicine in favor of drinking a lot. Said he felt a lot better on beer than on the medicine.

    Anyway, that, for me, illustrates the advantage of engaging with your subjects. You meet interesting people leading interesting lives, oft-times lives you could never imagine. The thought of getting a good photo out of it makes me feel a little dirty. In fact, I don’t think I could do it if I were only trying to get a great photo. I have to think it’s important to communicate something about the subject’s life or reality. Ficciones I tell myself, I know.

  • MW…

    Nice story and that’s the good thing about these encounters, because you get to see other people’s perspectives of life – good or bad. I’ve been noticing and commenting with Carlo how my best images always appear when I’m engaged with life. Living life and not thinking or living photography.

  • Hi Ross

    Sitting in a very dicey restaurant waiting for a dubious meal from the owner who is a woman with very little hair and tiny ants everywhere. To say i am apprehenisve puts it mildly. So i escaped into your album of photos. Love how you love light. You have a real feel for people. Nothing forced. It feels like shooting people is very natural to you. Something you enjoy. That’s the impression i get and it’s something that can’t be faked. Alas. And from this entire conversation that’s what i am taking away. That it’s not something (as Imants said) that you analyze 50 ways from Sunday. It’s something you just get out there and do (if that’s your personal vision). Thanks Ross. (Sorry for any typos. This screen is teentsy.)
    Best
    Katheleen

  • Katie my fault is that I analyse and over analyse everything (just ask my partner!)….. It’s something I am learning not to do. But the bottom line is that if you want to do something, you basically just have to get out there and do it… I wanted to photograph people; so just inch by inch did a little more each time.

    One of my biggest hurdles to overcome was walking up to someone and asking to take their photo. After doing it a few times I realised it wasn’t really a big issue at all! Like most problems there is a tendency for the old grey matter to make them bigger than the reality. :-)

  • “who is a woman with very little hair and tiny ants everywhere” The woman has ants? ;-)

  • No, the ants were crawling on the table and then up my arm. I changed tablea. The waiter did not even know if they sold coca cola which i asked for when i saw weird things floating in my water. The owner came out and she had about ten red hairs on her head and they stuck out at weird angles to her skull. I ate the food while pondering my phone in minute detail to distract me from what might possibly be crawling around in my vegetarian lasagna. Got the bill and there wasn’t even a total. Guy could not add, total nightmare.

    Look what you just said proves my point. You swallowed your anxiety and just dove in and the result is now that your work looks like dealing with people came totally natural to you. It was practice, practice, practice. And your photos reflect that acquired ease. There’s no other way to achieve this. Just practice.

  • “The king of “photographic empathy”probably must be Eugene Richards.” And Larry Towell….

  • “The woman has ants? ;-)” Tongue was firmly implanted in cheek…. ;-)

  • Sorry, Ross, the experience was too fresh in my mind to detect your humor. I just ate an entire pkg. of cookies to ease the pain. I hate ants. Ick.

  • Hmmm…at some point maybe we should apologize to Joe McNally for hijacking this thread? Or will David message him and explain the BURN kitchen-concept? :)

    Yeah, that’s a great story, Michael. It shows how different people have different approaches to the making. I sometimes think there is an undue pressure to getting close…or engaged…or unengaged. “If it isn’t good enough, then you aren’t close enough” worked for Capa; “the older I get, the closer I get” works for Gilden. As Kathleen mentioned – and as I have just learned from her to my dismay and sadness – Parr doesn’t do eye contact. Neither does Manos. Cartier-Bresson hated flash, but it worked for Brassai. These are prejudices that work in the favour of the individual photographer, and all that is okay, but it doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to their faith and belief system. There are many examples of good photographers who have gone the opposite way on the close versus distant continuum: Alec Soth, Mark Power, William Eggleston are powerfully shy, emotionally distant men who have succeeded in their work. Figuring out who you are – “look in the mirror, and ask yourself: “what do you see?”" (David) – leads to a corresponding style and authorship. Hard work hones it.

  • “I am the emergency medical team, you’ve got the whole crew, you’ve got the hospital.”

    There. I’ve squared the circle. Guilt alleviated!

    :))))

  • jeff:

    you may want to re-write this ‘here are many examples of good photographers who have gone the opposite way on the close versus distant continuum: Alec Soth, Mark Power, William Eggleston are powerfully shy, emotionally distant men who have succeeded in their work.’……

    personally knowing alec and mark, i can assure you both are quite ‘emotional’ and warm (and in mark’s case over drinks) pretty expressive cats…..as for WE, well, ummmm, he’s a beautiful madman ;))….but, i think you were talking about the emotion in the pictures, not the guys themselves ;)))))))

    ahhhhh blessed on line blogging, live to regret another day ;)

    hugs
    b

  • “Hmmm…at some point maybe we should apologize to Joe McNally for hijacking this thread?” I think he’d be pretty chuffed that we are discussing ways to photograph; and trying to help each other out! :-)

  • Ross I didn’t read the article so I just went by the discussion

  • a civilian-mass audience

    “…photo-graphos — the original Greek term — to write with light.”

    Thank you MR.JOE MCNALLY…!!!

    P.S…we BURNIANS do talk cause we are “lights” :)))

  • Bob:

    It was at the 10 person Magnum panel discussion spring 2012 in Rochester where Maestro brought up the idea of shooting himself. He identifies himself as a character, and he loves in turn photographing characters. Soth jumped in in agreement, saying that he knows himself to be emotionally distant, which is the primary reason he places his subjects (for the most part) at a physical distance between them and himself and his camera. Shrouding the large frame in black cloth, and then hiding beneath it, also jives with his approach.

    Meiselas jumped in too, but I forget unfortunately her input on the matter. What was so important to me at the moment was: first, Soth re-inforcing my fascination with the idea of photographing oneself; second, the realization that the approach to defining what it means to shoot oneself differs from person to person. David uses the analysis as motivation; Gilden as identification; Soth as a means to marry self-awareness with technique. This was super cool stuff for me to chew on; in an odd way, the added layer of complexity simplified my understanding of the phenomenon.

  • And 100! YES! Please carry on.

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