Michele McNally Answers Readers Questions on Talk to the Newsroom

Some good questions coming in for Michele McNally over on the NYTimes website. I reprinted a couple I like here but there’s still time to send her a question and more to read ( here).

Ms. McNally joined The Times as director of photography in June 2004 and was promoted to assistant managing editor in July 2005.

Before joining The Times, Ms. McNally was picture editor of Fortune Magazine from November 1986 until May 2004. Previously, she was picture editor of Time Life’s Magazine Development Group. She began her career as a sales representative for Sygma Photo News in 1977.

Q. Besides superb picture-editing abilities, what are the most important skills to have in your position?
— Lauren McFalls
A. Here’s a list, not necessarily in order. An ability to assess talent in others so you can surround yourself with great people. And an ability to build the team, get the team members excited and let them grow. Gaining the trust of the team is also important. A love and a nose for news — and endless curiosity. The ability to handle extremely stressful situations — the hardest being when you have people in dangerous places. Being flexible and ready to go in any direction at any time in an ever-changing world. Being collaborative. Being willing to take risks and being unafraid of failure. Lastly, the housekeeping of managing a budget.

Q. Nowadays everyone is a photographer it seems and newspapers are encouraging the public to send in their on-the-spot photos for publication. What, then, is the future of photography? Will there be professional photographers in 10 or 20 years? If so, how competitive will the field be and how would you recommend someone get his foot in the door?
— Bruce Wood
A. Mr. Wood: Your question is important and of the moment. As I view the images coming from Iran that are being posted all over, I am reminded and indeed pained by the fact that a skilled visual journalist has not recorded many of these events. This situation in the hands of a truth-seeking photojournalist could be extremely powerful, and not a mere “digital document.”

It seems obvious to me that the presence of a mindful storytelling photojournalist is sorely missed. I am indeed troubled by not knowing the sources of these pictures and their agendas, the disclaimers from the agencies providing them, and the validity of the captions — let alone the addition of “best quality available.”

It brings to mind the amazing work of Gilles Peress from Iran, in 1979-80 and his book “Telex Iran: In the Name of Revolution.” Surely a visual interpreter like Peress and many others would provide pictures that would have more impact and staying power.

Photography is indeed a highly competitive field — now. Photographers come to publications in various ways. Though I don’t recommend sending me a “shoe” in a box, saying you want to get your foot in the door! I hope that wasn’t you.

Know the publication you want to work for. Sounds easy — but I do get e-mails, and mailers that are not appropriate. Then find the right person at that publication for the work that you want to do.

Go to photographic workshops — it is so much easier to see a picture editor who is not facing a daily schedule. When you show a portfolio ask, only if they like the work, who else they could reccommend for you to see. When a picture editor gets a referral from another picture editor from a magazine or another paper about a photographer, it is noted.

Q. What happened to the good old days of photojournalism? You know, first-class airfares, unlimited expense accounts, scotch with a magazine’s picture editor in his office on Friday nights?
— Matthew Naythons
A. Hi Matthew: Yes, I do remember those days — robust ad revenue, 500-page magazines, monthly expense accounts that surpass yearly these days, off-site meetings in Lanai, catered gourmet dinners on closing nights, and yes showing pictures to the editor in a bar! I remember getting 5 figures for pictures that weren’t shot yet — and the competition so stiff the prices would escalate — and the picture editors not even knowing what their budget were. Wow, what a long time ago!

Many things have changed since that time, budgets have been slashed, newspapers and magazines have folded, and staffs have been cut. Along the way something else happened — the birth and rise of digital photography and the wire agencies getting more competitive and hiring really strong photographers. It became easier to cut the photo budget when you no longer had the expense of film and processing, and did you really need to send someone so far, at great expense, when the wires had the fastest transmitting abilities and had accumulated a great new roster of photographers? All that said, we did not have the Web back then — and it is a very visually hungry medium. There are new ways to showcase photography these days, and different, exciting ways to tell stories. I guess we will just have to use our budget for newsgathering and forgo the (admittedly missed) perks.

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. DC Shooter

    The only time I shot for Michelle was when she was at Fortune. She said my pictures were stiff. I swore from that point on, I would never shoot for her again.

    She was right. They were. I was nervous at that shoot and it showed in the images. She is an excellent photo editor and she knows how to guide talent.

  2. “As I view the images coming from Iran that are being posted all over, I am reminded and indeed pained by the fact that a skilled visual journalist has not recorded many of these events. This situation in the hands of a truth-seeking photojournalist could be extremely powerful, and not a mere “digital document.”

    It seems obvious to me that the presence of a mindful storytelling photojournalist is sorely missed.”

    This to me gets to the heart of the matter regarding photography in the digital age. The proliferation of (mostly) well exposed ‘pretty’ pictures doesn’t make up for the unique skill and talent of visual storytelling. Unfortunately there are more than a few folks in editorial positions that really don’t get this. Sadly I see a lot of what amounts to little just a visual document being passed off as meaningful photojournalism.

    On the other hand…

    I just took a look at some of what the NYT is offering in the way of photoblogs and I must say I am surprised and impressed. Particularly with the “One in 8 Million” project (http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/index.html). Though the concept is not entirely original on the web, the NYT’s obvious commitment to this project proves that there is plenty of room for penetrating photojournalism in a variety of formats.

    I have a background in film production and I’ve been shooting video for a few years while focusing on my still photography and toying with how I want to integrate it with my photography. It’s affirming to know that someone at some of the majors are taking a serious look at what can be done with this new medium. I think it may usher in a new era of really intimate storytelling that allows us to reflect on our lives. You don’t have to fly off to Myanmar to create stories that will move people.

    Thanks for posting this Rob. It was a great read and I found some real inspiration.

  3. Michele McNally’s powerful choice of images has been a topic of conversation with photographer friends this year. Among others to single out, we were particularly impressed with the stark front page image she chose by Shiho Fukada of Tibetan monks boycotting New Year’s celebrations to mourn for those killed in a past crackdown. Friends who never buy the Times bought several copies that day for the cover photograph and those they ran inside.
    Thanks for posting this interview.

    • Sergey Molotov

      @elizabeth avedon,

      photography apart, they should better try getting images from Lebanon, Gaza, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Pakistan, as so far i’ve seen none.

      too easy to send a guy in Dharamsala and shoot a few staged pics with angry monks shouting anti-chinese slogans.

      this is not journalism, it’s only propaganda and they’re proud of it.

      it’s disgusting now in Teheran they used the same old tricks : making a freedom hero out of a dead 16 yrs old girl, now we’ll see hollywood movies about her, books, interviews, posters, postcards, stickers, t-shirts.

      how come no one publishes the images made by russian agencies who are in Teheran right now and are allowed to shoot wherever they want ?

      • @Sergey Molotov, I don’t work at the Times so I can’t address all of your many issues, but I know the photographer you refer to as “a guy in Dharamsala sent to shoot a few staged pics with angry monks shouting anti-chinese slogans”and SHE is an award winning photojournalist that was 2000 miles from Dharamsala in the Qinghai Province of (Tibet) China when she shot the photographs I mentioned at great risk to herself. She was detained by officials for almost a week after shooting those images.

        • @elizabeth avedon, My mistake: The photographer was detained by officials for 20 hours (not a week). What I found so powerful about the cover image chosen was it’s stark absence of shouting angry monks. It was very bare. An unusual choice for the front page of a newspaper.

  4. Dear Michele,

    A group of us (see below) meet the first Wednesday evening of each
    month in New York City (SOHO) to show each other work, discuss
    new projects and challenging problems, and talk about photography,
    art, and ideas. We do not invite assistants or others; the
    discussions are open, intimate, and very enlightening.

    We formed the group because as working professional photographers we
    function on separate islands. We felt that by talking about our work
    and showing each other problems and projects, and trusting each other,
    in a small, limited group, without a large audience, we could grow in
    many ways. We usually invite one or two photographers, editors, 
    or art directors as guests and devote the evening to their work.  

    We’d love to have you as one of our guests one evening to present your work as a photoeditor.  At least half (the entire evening in the event of one guest) of the evening would be yours.
    We hope you’ll be willing to share your work with us at
    one of our future meetings. 

    If you are interested, please let me know.

    Sincerely,

    Howard Schatz
     
    For:

    Nina Berman,
    Josef Astor,
    Chris Callis,
    William Coupon,
    Andrew Eccles, 
    Steve Fine,
    Gregory Heisler, 
    Vincent Laforet,
    Matt Mahurin,
    Joe McNally,
    Hans Neleman,
    Michael O’Neill,
    Sylvia Plachy,
    George Steinmetz,
    Stephen Wilkes,
    Mike Yamashita.

    Some of those who have shared their work with us:

    Bill Allard, Stephen Alvarez, Harry Benson,
    Stanley Burns, Jodi Cobb, Diane Cook/Len Jenshel,
    Bill Frakes, Sally Gall, Lois Greenfield, David Alan Harvey, 
    Todd Heisler, Henry Horenstein,  Walter Ioss,  Ed Kashi,  
    Jim Krantz, Larry Fink, Roxanne Lowitt, Steve McCurry, 
    Sheila Metzner, Duane Michels, Platon, Chris Rainier, 
    Warwick Saint, Rodney Smith,  Jamey Stillings,  Deborah Turbeville, 
    Peter Turnley, Diego Uchitel,  Nick Vedros, Alex Webb, 
    Timothy White, Jimmy Williams,  Christian Witkin