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



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”

  • Words to motivate, educate, and inspire.

    What a great education in a few moments. Thank you, DAH for arranging and publishing this, and thank you, Joe, for sharing the insights and direction.

  • P. Hamel? I’m assuming we’re talking about Pete Hamill, and I don’t care if it’s a photography blog, we’re getting the writers’ names right. ;-)

  • Akaky.. I stand corrected.. and now know why I couldn’t google him!

  • @ DAH: Thanks a lot for this interview!

    I think the best pictures live right around you, and are things you grew up with JMCN

    makes me think about the Sally Mann series of her family, her kids in the farm. Makes me think of DAH and his OuterBanks, makes me think about Anton and his Yakuza exhibition which started in Tokyo, where his brothers lives, makes me think about Chalskiergeberg and the Paraná, etc, etc,

    Last year I started I project about “Evolution of Maths in school” from 1st grade to Ph.D, below the link to the series (which I hope to finish soon, ’cause schools are just around the corner…)

    I personally grew up with science, I’ve studied physics at University in Buenos Aires prior to swithc to photography, and sometimes in the semester I was a teacher assistant. This serie is about to give back to students/pupils what they looks like those ‘ole’ days…


  • Another great conversation…..these are becoming classics in their own right!
    When I revisit them I always pick up something new I missed on previous readings.

  • Great interview guys! Thanks for sharing…

    I’ve got a question re:

    DAH: So you had two cameras… a black & white and a color camera.
    JMcN: Yeah.
    DAH: Sounds like my worst nightmare.

    DAH – Do mean switching back and forth in general or dealing with the two simultaneously? You have mentioned before that you love to shoot b&w, sometimes even more than color, and I’m curious how you are able to switch between the two? When you begin to respond to color, how are you able to not respond to it?

  • Great interview. Thanks guys.

  • Harvey/Joe.

    You guys can’t tell it any with any more clarity. It was pure joy to read this interview and when we cross paths the first round is mine!

  • As a photographer who has spent his entire career out in the hinterlands, literally and figuratively, almost entirely alone and isolated from any serious, regular, interaction with other photographers and those who work with photographers, I am struck by how both of these mentor/master photographers were so strongly mentored and influenced by those they worked with and among.

    I guess that is what attacked me to Burn in the first place – the great photography that regularly appear here, sure, but even more so the chance to mingle with others who love working with a camera as much as I do. I never did like to work with lights, though. I always wanted to show the world in the light I found it. Maybe if I had rubbed the kind of elbows these two did I might have seen it otherwise.

    The photos are great, of course. One thing I can’t help but take note of is how strongly the lighting of Joe McNally’s tends to call attention to itself. I don’t mean this in a negative way. The lighting is truly spectacular, is used to make a statement that could not be made otherwise and I am in awe of it. With David, I see it differently. He lights his work in strong, yet subtle, fashion in a way that when I first look at his pictures, I am struck by the picture alone. I think about the lighting as an afterthought.


    i hope Joe jumps in here at some point…yes, i too would say that his lighting is obvious lighting and the intent of most of mine is to not be noticed…just two different styles imo…..both work depending on context and intent..

    by the way, i was surely as alone as are you when i was an emerging photographer…no mentors for me except in books at the library…i did not meet another real live photographer for many years after i got going ..probably grad school was when i first interacted with other photographers and editors…a solid 10 years in…i see myself as pretty much self taught except for the “trade” part of it which i did learn in both grad school at Missouri and with my first newspaper job in Topeka,Kansas…by then however i had already done my early family work Off For A Family Drive qnd Tell It Like It Is….sure hanging with others is super helpful…and much to be learned…yet there is absolutely no way around the solitary nature of what this craft/art is all about….you are alone…we are all alone …period….only you can make the key moves and/or decisions for your direction…others influence, stimulate, etc but the key stuff , the nut of it, is solitary…

    cheers, david

  • Cheers both of you, interesting stuff.

  • Frostfrog…

    Perhaps you’ve probably never liked working with lights because you’ve never been taught how to use them creatively? It’s never too late to give it a try and once you grasp the basics like always working in manual and banishing things like Canon’s E-TTL flash metering system you new world will open up in your photography!!

  • BTW…

    Very nice interview…can’t wait to read more of them.

  • Two things I share with Joe: a love for artificial light, and being accused of having a discursive personality!

    May I please plug his “Hot Shoe Diaries”? For me it is the bible for bring-your-own lighting. I have read it several times; even though it’s easy to read, learning to light is for me like learning a foreign language. It has been slow in its coming, so his comment: “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.” comes as the inspiration and the big reveal of this conversation. I’m going to stew on that for a long time.

    Thanks so much for this interview.

  • Paul, there is something to your suggestion. Of course, I have not been able to follow a career in photography without using lights from time to time and I believe that when I have, I have been creative, because I have never wanted it to look like I had been using lights. So I would do things like bounce flash off windows to approximate light through a window, fire flash through lamp shades, bottles, glasses, and bounce them off any type of thing that seemed it might work. When I went to David’s loft workshop, he really wanted me to come to a one day lighting workshop that preceded it, but I had spent the previous night not sleeping and traveling from Alaska to New York, where I got to spend exactly one hour in a bed in Newark hotel, and by then it was already too late to get there in time, so I skipped it, reasoning it would be better to recover for a day before going to the workshop.

    Still, he did discuss and demonstrate some of his lighting techniques and I was pleased to see that what he showed – flash through bottles and such – were all things I had tried when I needed to. But of course, he is much more skilled and refined at it.

    Mostly, it has truly been that I have just wanted to document the world as it presents to me, be the light good or “bad.” I don’t really believe light is ever bad. It just is.

    I once did a portrait project in mid-winter in the Arctic when the sun was down, shooting in peoples homes without any window light at all. So I carried umbrellas and such and the project proved successful.

    Yet, when I read David’s article, the thought did strike me that if I had spent time interacting with other photographers in the way he and Joe McNally did, I might have saw things differently and developed a different philosophy and gained skills I don’t have.

    You are right – as long as one has eyes and can manipulate a camera, one ought to try new things, and learn more.

    Carlo: thanks for the link! I had looked at McNally’s blog but had not made it to this entry. It provides some good starting points for following some of Paul’s advice.

  • Frostfrog,

    Not a problem….it’s a great blog….lots of good stuff plus that entry is a gem.

    And talking about advise….if you have missed this one, then here it is:

  • I would like to ask for a bit of advice. I need some counsel on how to approach strangers and ask them if I may take their photo. My dilemma is I’m scared shitless, I’ve had a couple prickly experiences and its left me kind of afraid, but I refuse to give up.

  • Paul, you just gave me some good advice, so, as this is something I do often, I will try. By nature I am a shy person, yet this is something I do all the time – usually successfully but not always. The most important thing – just make yourself ask. The worst that can usually happen is they will say, “no.” Well, sometimes, you could get shot, but not too often.

    Basically, I just introduce as a professional photographer doing this or that, quickly sum up why I would like to include them in my work and go from there.

    The trickiest part,though, is distinguishing, “No! I really would like to be photographed but I’ve got to put up a front first,” to “No! I absolutely do not want you to photograph me.” What I have discovered is that some of those who most strongly object at first are the ones who most badly want to be photographed.

    Then, you just have to go by feeling, because there is no use trying to push anyone who really doesn’t want you to, but if you walk away from the person who really does want you to, that person might well be offended that you believed and did not take their picture.

  • Paul:

    One of the first things Gilden said to our workshop was that if people came to it expecting to learn how to shoot close, he wouldn’t be able to help…but if they wanted to shoot closer to what they were used to, then he could. It’s about taking baby steps, and gradually getting to a physical distance you’re uncomfortable with, overcoming that, and then getting closer to that proximity where previously one was “scared shitless”, is now merely cause for unease.

    You are a consistently sincere commentator here; it is something I feel strongly. I suggest you use that strength to your advantage and just be yourself. Start by shooting family, then friends, then co-workers, then ask strangers for their portraits on the street. It helps to be in a busy social scene; if people see you going up to strangers, they become softened to your approach. A little conversation goes a long way, too.

    Good luck.

  • Along with what Bill said: One of the secrets of street photography is realizing that most people actually want to have their photo taken. In fact, my theory is that for those who don’t, there is something mightly wrong with their character. In which case it’s better to just vacate the situation.

  • Paul
    One of my greatest passions is photographing strangers. And my approach is simple. I approach strangers as I would friends. Gently. With a smile. And I show interest. With full honesty. “Love your hat”. And we have a conversation. And I photograph as we have a conversation. That may last a minute or hours. Body language is everything. If it doesn’t feel right I don’t approach. The photograph is secondary. The interaction is primary.
    But I always understand that I have no idea what a particular stranger has been through in that moment. They may be grieving for all I know. So I never take negativity personally because I know I’m not causing it.
    I rarely introduce myself as a photographer.

    I suggest simply engaging strangers that visually interest you without a camera. Or keep your camera in your bag. Then slowly introduce your camera and make a few snaps. But stay engaged as long as it feels mutual. Don’t be in a hurry to make their photo.

    I always, always give them my card and offer them a print. Funny thing is I rarely get requests for prints.

    There are times I don’t ask permission first. It’s like a dance eventually. It just feels right. Eventually.

    Always smile.

  • Just shoot the buggers

  • PAUL,

    This is something I’ve been working on as well. In addition to the good advice already offered, thought I’d share something I’ve been doing that seems to be making me more comfortable approaching people AND them more comfortable having their photo taken by a stranger.

    Most often if I notice someone, I’ve already gotten a shot in their direction, perhaps even with them in it (at more of a distance – say, 10-20 feet). At that point, if I haven’t already gotten their attention, I try and make eye contact, and then to non-verbally say “ok to take your photo?” with a gesture and questioning look. It’s kind of hard to describe, but I think you know what I mean. Most often, I’ll get a nod, so I’ll take another shot that may or may not be what I’m after, and then I use this as a reason to approach and talk to them. Sometimes I’ve had people shake their head “no” and then I just smile and move on…but that’s been the exception.

    As Virgil says, I always give them a card, sometimes writing a quick word or two on the back that they can include in an email to me that will let me match them to the photo…and I let them know that if they want a copy to email me and I’ll send it, unless it’s just horrid which means it will already be deleted :)

    Not many bother to write, but some do.

    Anyway, I think the idea of the non-verbal “permission” gives me a bit of confidence, and then the “excuse” to talk with them. Although anyone who has met me probably will laugh at me needing an excuse to talk :D

  • I guess I shold also say that sometimes, depending on mood and place, I follow Imants advice as well :)

  • Yes, Andrew, I do too. Probably more often than not. But there are times circumstance pretty much demands you ask.

  • Paul remember that lots of photographers like David for example use fixers, assistants, locals and shoot with other photographers.The best lone wolves are the 20 year olds that can run fast

  • “20 year olds that can run fast” As I’m now 50; does that mean I can get away 2.5x faster than a 20-year old? ;-)

  • Paul; I’m no good at the “photograph a stranger and walk away” type of work. I enjoy the contact etc. But I had to build up the gumption over time to do I usually chatted to customers while out the front straightening up the cabinet. That made it easier for me to approach strangers and just shoot the breeze.

    And this is coming from someone who was too shy to photograph plants on the side of the road when doing nature photography! I thought I could feel every eye in every passing car staring at me!

    However; it has surprised me how willing people (generally) are happy to be photographed. A lot of the potential negative reaction often resides in your own head. I’ve discovered that people are usually interested in why you feel they are interesting enough to be photographed!

    A smile goes a long way and I’m sure people easily pick up on a friendly “open” attitude.

  • does that mean I can get away 2.5x faster than a 20-year old? ;-) rooster The answer is yes

  • Paul, I’m shocked at all the bad advice you’ve received regarding your question of how to shoot strangers. The tried and true answer, of course, is drugs and/or alcohol. This works best if both you and your subjects are under the influence. Of course you cannot always control your subjects, but you can control yourself, so before hitting the street, you should always take a few pain pills and at least a couple shots of tequila, or whatever tonic appropriate to your environs. Then once the scene is properly lubricated, all things will flow. And even if it don’t work out and you get beat up, at least you won’t feel any pain. At least until the next day, but then you can make self-portraits of your bruised and battered face, which will no doubt be phenomenal, so there’s really no way to lose with the drug/alcohol method of street photography. Put some Iggy Pop on your phone for some background music and there’s practically no way you can go wrong.

  • The best way to photograph strangers is to raise the camera and press and the button.

  • Photographing strangers.

    I think either you are the type of person who does it, or not. I could never, ever, bring myself to photograph the way Bruce Gilden does. It would feel impossibly rude. (I’m sure Bruce is a lovely person when he’s not thrusting his camera in stranger’s faces) There’s no denying how cool the resulting photos are. So many of the subjects seem to be saying to themselves “who the fuck are you”.

    I have enough trouble thrusting my camera in the faces of family and close friends without asking first.

    I’ve recently recieved my latest photo book purchase (it’s getting out of hand) Bruce Davidson’s Subway, shot in the olden days, with flash on Kodachrome. I love Davidson’s stuff, but there is no way I would ever do photographs like that. My testicles are way too small.

  • I mean good grief, just
    that first shot in the Gilden video of him assaulting that poor old woman with his camera, the guy aught’a be arrested.

  • Paul, et. al., I started feeling a little bad about my mostly joking advice on how to shoot people. Though I find it works at carnival or coney island, much more often than not I find the best way to approach people is with great empathy and respect. You want to photograph them because they are beautiful in the context of their lives, which are meaningful, very very meaningful, and it’s of utmost importance to communicate those realities to the world at large. Of course there are as many ways as there are photographers; I recently met a guy who was a veritable Houdini at shooting from the hip and capturing his subjects totally unaware, so figuring out how to hold our camera upside down and using a sharpie to put the appropriate upside down focusing marks could be the way to go for you, but from what I know about you, I suspect you’d do better going the path of empathy. You have to be able to sincerely answer the question “why the hell would I want to let you take my photo?”

  • Paul; Watching Martin Parr work (18-mins into the video) opened my eyes on how to photograph people. It showed me how willing many are to be photographed…

  • And Larry Towell earlier in the video. Pity the video voice-over sounds like it’s come from a 1950’s Britsh Pathe newsreel! ;-)

  • Hi everybody! I’m having trouble sending comments on Burn, nobody fault but mine. I left my ipad at a friends house and won’t get it back for a little while yet. Hopefully early morning all will be normal.

    Anyway above all, I just want to thank everybody for the great and sincere advice you’ve all posted round here. So thank you all very, very much I really appreciate the effort. Will comment properly tomorrow!

  • MW – I was just glad to see you again. I figured you were likely relaxing a bit yourself when you wrote your post.

    I would say one who is serious about photographing strangers must use a mix of all advice offered above.


    “Just shoot the buggers”

    TOTALLY agree! By the time you engage and coax and chat and kiss their asses the moment is plum gone. Unless they’re so unique that you want several frames, then shoot and move on.

    Hey here?



  • MW, actually i loved your first “how to”, tongue-in-cheek though it was. It was sort of a metaphorical go with the flow, swing loose in the hip, get playful, lose the nerve, catch the moment and surf it all the way in..when you’re on the street, that’s the zone to be in.

    I mostly find that when i ask permission i get a yes answer and a crappy photo. When i get a no answer i try talking them into it but usually get so disgusted that i want to ask them why they think their face is so special anyway.

    As far as sticking a flash in someone’s face, um, that might work in a civilized country where people bite back on their rage. Here it would have gotten me seriously dead a long time ago.

    And this conversation’s been over for hours so like who cares anyway, i’m writing to hear myself babble.

  • a civilian-mass audience

    I am here…back from the mountains…!!!


    I am going to my aisle…see ya there…I LOVE YOU ALLLLLLLL

  • CIVI?!

    Hey there YUCCA!

    I hope your Easter was a real egg-hunt and glad to see you back!

  • a civilian-mass audience

    KATIEEE…I ate all the eggs…my cholesterol is up,Up…UPPPP…hiihii

    love yaaaa…and love to ALL MY BURNIANS!!!

  • love you too, Civi..cholesterol and all :)

  • Kathleen…

    I’m bored of not interacting with strangers, shooting from the hip or just surreptitiously. Maybe those you’ve asked their permission and have turned out to be boring were just the wrong subjects. Look at Anders Petersen or Jaob Au Sobol they all interact with the person and the images seem to be quite compelling. I’m looking for that edgy look in the eyes of someone you’ve just asked who half trusts you half doesn’t but can’t resist the temptation of posing. Anyway I honestly want to know a bit more about the people I photograph and there’s no other way but talking. We all liked to be listened to.

  • Paul

    It depends on what you feel you need to do to develop your personal vision. I don’t have trouble approaching strangers. I do so during the rainy season here when people huddle in doorways waiting for a downpour to pass. That’s when they hold still and have time to kill. Otherwise it seems neither they nor i really want to interact. And i don’t (yet) consider it essential or incredibly illuminating to do so. You may just be more evolved than i am :) I will look at the work you recommend but what i am seeking in my photos is (generally) not going to happen photographed through the filter of a social interaction.

    Good luck!

  • I think that’s why I’ve always been a very limited fan of Henri Cartier Bresson. The man never interacted with his streets subjects a clinical safe distance. Of course Matisse was a different story going really close to his hero…

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