It would not be an understatement to say that I taught myself how to shoot by poring over the work of Joe McNally, James Stanfield, Sam Abell, and David Alan Harvey. I was exposed to their work through my grandparents’ collection of National Geographic magazines. (This was in the late 1980s, when Joe had just started working for the publication.)
I analyzed every one of their images in an attempt to “crack the code” to their magical eyes. The process raised many a question: What is so powerful about this particular image? Is it the light? The composition? The subject matter? The perspective? What lens did they use? How did they get that color in the background?
I “borrowed” my dad’s Nikon FE2 with a 50mm lens for a “weekend” and set out to recreate their images, but from my own point of view. Not having access to a darkroom, I shot 35mm slides (actually, the first time I ever saw a darkroom was in grad school, as I ended up studying architecture for my undergraduate degree, but that’s another story for another day). Shooting slides was the only way I could see my many mistakes and few random successes almost right away. Times have changed a bit.
The results of these explorations were generally disastrous, but I took lots of notes concerning aperture, shutter speed, and lighting conditions for every frame in a little journal. The camera, journal and a National Geographic backpack made me feel like pro on assignment. I was a bit naïve.
When I made a properly exposed image I matched it to its settings and used them as my baseline on the next roll of film. This was certainly a tedious and expensive way to achieve photographic fluency, but it was a valuable learning process that can’t ever be replaced by anything else.
Throughout my college years I improved my technical skills, and continued to be inspired by Joe’s images. “Did he use a flash? I actually see two shadows. I think he used two. Did he use a blue and a red gel? Let’s see what happens if I do the same. ”
This was a never-ending exploration and a bizarre, yet wonderful, one-way conversation with my invisible photo mentors. That is, until several years ago, when I was invited to teach workshops in Dubai. To my amazement, sitting across the table were David Alan Harvey, David Burnett, and Joe McNally, among other photo “celebrities.”
“Hi, I’m Joe.” Just like that. Without a last name, and not even a hint of snobbery or false humility. After a few nights of having dinner together, and after several glasses of wine, I finally had the balls to share with him that I learned how to shoot by copying his images. I also told him he was the most humble famous person I knew.
We’ve met several times since then, and I consider him a dear friend. Imagine my excitement when he called to ask if I’d be interested in editing 25 of his most popular, fun, educational, and madcap posts from his blog and then translating them into Spanish!
Here’s the beautifully designed ebook, available in either Spanish or English. Let’s support Joe by getting a copy today.
After closely following McNally’s career for so many years and having the wonderful opportunity to chat with him, I realized photography is a marathon, not a sprint. It is about being prepared, technically and mentally for new challenges, and never stop learning and trying new things.
Both Edison and Darwin kept personal journals where they kept notes about current and upcoming projects. Both would regularly review their notes, and reconsider previous concepts, including the ones that failed.
After translating Joe’s articles, I believe (and this is purely a personal and completely subjective assumption) his blog is both therapy and journal, it is the place where he documents things that worked and didn’t work. Perhaps his articles are the source for fresh concepts and technical approaches to current challenges. I might have to ask him over wine next time we meet. I also should ask where he gets the energy to travel so much. I can use a bit of that!
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.