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Getting High….

May 26

In Stories at 2:13pm

Summertime, officially. Right here in NYC. This time of year comes round, and I love going to Manhattan again, enjoying the late light, and the kinda clear skies of May. It’s still cool enough, and the heat of August hasn’t risen up and shrink wrapped the city in a dirty brown, clinging smog.

It was about this time of year I shot this…..

105 stories up on the Empire State Building, the true grand dame of all buildings. Not the biggest, just the most storied. I have always loved climbing around up there. I’ve got this little niche…hell, it’s not even a niche, it’s more like an on again, off again hobby, kind of like a vacation type scuba diver who only goes in when the water is clear and warm. That morning, on assignment for the book America 24/7, I worked once again with my friend Tom Silliman, an engineer and fearless builder and climber of antennas. One SB80 by the way. My assistant at the time, a terrific shooter named  Alicia Hansen, had to bury the flash in her, well, under her, uh, chest, and shield it from all the other transmissions up there, cause they were driving the flash nuts.

I had met Tom shooting this….

This was one of those jobs. Had the bright idea of putting a different twist on changing a light bulb for a story called “The Power of Light” for the National Geographic. I thought to myself, okay, we can do this. I’ll take a picture of them changing the bulb at the top of the Empire State.  What could go wrong? Well, lots, as it turned out. First climb, I was competing with Ripley’s Believe It or Not television program, believe it or not. They had a chopper floating around out there, and had the notion of wanting to see the light come on and off while Tom was just approaching it on the antenna. Things went haywire with their communications, and, after slogging my way up the antenna to about where I was oh, 15 feet shy of it, the light shut off. I mean I’m hanging there in my harness, and the bulb’s dead. Had to settle for this, and crop the top of the antenna out of the frame. Wasn’t what I came for.

Crazy. Bulb’s dead, and there I am, wearing the only light in the joint, my headlamp. Shot from a chopper by a really good photog, Jim Anness, then of the Bergen Record.

Sheesh. I was not in shape for that climb. The antenna at that point is like a telephone pole at 1500 feet. It moves around a lot, and has climbing pegs on either side of it. As I came down the pegs, my hand cramped on one of them. Had to reach around the pole and pry my fingers off of it. Otherwise, I might still be up there, kind of french fried, hanging off the side of one of the biggest microwave transmitters in the world. I think they have a power setting on the antenna called “london broil.”

I got my chances up there because of a truly great New Yorker, Alex Smirnoff.

Alex was in charge of what they call the mast operations at the building. He was always approachable, and he instinctively knew that the Empire State wasn’t just a building. It’s the centerpiece of NY, an important piece of the history of the city crafted in limestone and granite, and it was built to be photographed. He had a job where the easiest thing, always, would be to say no. But being a gentleman who appreciated the beauty of the building, he said yes. I remember breathlessly trying to give him a rationale for a particular climb, and I heard him chuckling at the other end of the line. “Don’t give me that crap, Joe, you just like to climb stuff,” he said, in his kindly fashion. A great man, who sadly, has passed on.

All this silliness began many moons ago, about the time I came to NY. I was a copyboy at the NY Daily News, a real rube in terms of NY press photography, but I was determined to impress my boss, Eddie Peters, and I requested a loaner of the Nikkor 15mm wide angle, the only one in the department. I was gonna climb the Queensboro Bridge with it, cause they were repainting it. Things were looser back then. I walked onto the bridge, talked the workers, told ’em I was from the News, and started climbing.

This was also a good lesson in what I was worth as a photog. Eddie loaned me the 15mm, a very expensive lens, with considerable doubt in his eyes. This green, untested kid was taking one of the most valuable pieces of glass the newspaper owned. He looked at me, and asked if I would do him a favor. “Sure,” I said. He said, “If you fall, could you find a way to leave the lens behind?”

Got this…

I was off to the races with this climbing thing. Next up, the north tower of the World Trade Center.

At that time, no harnesses, no zorbers, none of the sophisticated safety stuff we have now. I had a belt and a rope, and, well, not much in the way of brains.

That climb up the tower was a one off, but I did return to the Empire State a number of times. Put Donna Weinbrecht, America’s freestyle skiing champion up there….

And of course, a long time ago, in the middle 80’s, on assignment for Geo magazine to shoot a story on gargoyles, I went up the Chrysler. Little did I know at the time this gargoyle would become like one of those “picture spots,” you know, like they have at Disney, markers telling you if you point your camera this way, a good picture results. This has become, over time, a very popular gargoyle, especially with photogs. Me being me, of course, I am hunched over with a flash meter taped to a monopod, getting the read from the strobes I have on a portico several stories below.

There’s that damn “safety” belt again. I tell ya, glad we got harnesses now. If I had fallen with that thing, it would have saved my neck but broken my back.

Got this, available light…

And this, later, with flash.

I know, I know, the available light is nicer…..oh well. Shows me what good it did to drag Speedotrons up there

Had some funny, stupid stuff up high as well….King Kong on the Empire State…

And this one up the old Coke sign at the north end of Times Square. That’s all some sort of lcd, led, computer driven display now. Makes sense. Musta been a bitch changing all these bulbs.

The weather breaks like this in New York, and I find myself looking up still…..more tk

Gerry says:

on May 26, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Great read and some magic shots!! Used to visit NY when I was working aboard the Queen Mary 2. Absolutely amazing place and cannot wait to get back there. Hopefully sooner than later!

John Scherer says:

on May 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

So Joe, Did Vincent the the gargoyle idea from you, or you from Vincent 😉

I love these shots. That one thing I struggle with now is getting access to places to make interesting images. Everyone just says no – without even thinking about it.


Hilary Helton says:

on May 26, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Holy moly… I’m holding on for dear life to the edge of my desk… I think I’ll go lay down to recover!

Chris Klug says:

on May 26, 2009 at 2:41 pm

I came across your work when someone linked me your lunchtime lecture at Google. Since then I’ve bought and read both your wonderful books, and met a couple of bloggers who claim they actually know you, all personal-like. Whatever.

But the thing I want to say is that besides the clear and obvious skill you have with Nikon gear and a strobe or two, you tell a great story. Even without the photos, I’d come here for the stories. Great stuff about my favorite city.

Thanks for this post. And you are so right about May. Walking in the city at night in the spring, there’s nothing like it.

Nicole says:

on May 26, 2009 at 3:17 pm

I’m not afraid of heights, but being up there woulda scared the bajeezus outta me!!!

Raf Godlewski says:

on May 26, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Even looking at these on my screen gives me the hibbie gibbies ! Joe, you’re the man ! The WTC and the light bulb shots are great. How the heck did you get Donna Weinbrecht to go up there and stand a foot away from the edge, leaning over it…

Alicia says:

on May 26, 2009 at 4:32 pm

bury the flash in my chest???? figures you would add that to your story there sparky! you’re very funny :) I don’t remember that…but it seems to be right given the working conditions. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’d ever seen in my life though :)

Mike Wiacek says:

on May 26, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Joe, I climbed a 35 foot pole during a company offsite and nearly keeled over in fear. You are definitely something else. 😀


Brad Gingerich says:

on May 26, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Joe, you are totally the man! This was truly a great read and I love the shots! Keep shooting, Brad

Dawn Sutherland says:

on May 26, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Wow! I cannot believe those shots. I would have been to scared to get those shots but they are worth it!! I am not afraid of heights generally but that is way too high without enough secure ground below….kudos.

Dustin Diaz says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Tip: Do not “actually get high while going vertical” :) haha. But on a more serious note, i’ve been tempted on more than a few occasions to simply rent a helicopter for an afternoon to get shots like this. Lucky for NY folk, you have the empire state building to do this with. great photos Joe!

Phil says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Dam it Tom (Silliman)!

Thats a 60 watt bulb not a 1000 watt!

andy says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm

oh my god! being scared of heights, i wish there was a way to toggle the pictures on and off! love the post, and way to go to impress your boss! could never find the balls to go up there, not even with a harness and a safety net!

Jon says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Holy Crap, Joe! I’m dizzy just looking at these images. Then again, I get wobbly 10 feet up a ladder. Unbelievable shots from you yet again. Save some for the rest of us, will ya?

Dawn @ My Home Sweet Home says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm

I feel like my stomach just bottomed out. Those are amazing images!

Tom (fotofolio) says:

on May 26, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Ok Joe, you’re officially NUTS!

as proof:


Marc Schilter says:

on May 26, 2009 at 6:29 pm

I love your photos. I’m deeply impressed! I read your BLOG every week.
Greetings from Switzerland

The FBI Wants To Know says:

on May 26, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Mr McNally –

These “Tall Tales” continue to feed the fire of suspicion that you really are a cartoon character who managed to escape the celluloid realm. How else could such a wide range of adventures be true?

Agent 728

Ed says:

on May 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Damn, Joe… i’m getting vertigo just looking at the pictures. Like other people leaving comments i’ve done my share of stupid high stunts (like leaning over the end of a fully extended ladder on a fire truck), but you can have the top of the Empire State Building and the former World Trade Center. Whatever you got paid i would have added an extra $1 just to give you kudos. I love your work and look forward to every blog you post.

Chris Stone says:

on May 26, 2009 at 7:15 pm

I’m with all those poster above who got giddy, with a tight fuzzy feeling below the stomach. Hights are one thing, but the top of some of these structures is just plain scary.

Rick Sizemore says:

on May 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm

I work as a Telecommunications Specialist and Joe is correct, if he fell, the belt he was wearing would have probably broken his back. The modern safety harness improves safety and your confidence. I have climbed towers, but nothing like that before! The shots are just awesome!

Stephan says:

on May 26, 2009 at 8:03 pm

you have been crazy, you still are crazy, love it, absolutely brilliant.
one day, i’d love to be with you on a shoot… i never stop learning…

all the best from australia!

Mark says:

on May 26, 2009 at 9:00 pm

This post is leaving me speechless.

First, the image of you guys up on the pole…holy cow. My stomach flips just looking at it.

Then, the young McNally in B&W. Who shot that one?

Finally, you on the Chrysler building. I hope you just took a second to stand there, look out over the great city of NYC like that and just let out a deep breath and a feeling of pride. You really bring the city alive with shots like this. If not for photography, do you think you’d ever have had these experiences?

I agree with Chris Klug up there (me being one of those bloggers he’s met….)Such great images, great storytelling, great post. We come for the images, but stay for the stories….

Michel says:

on May 26, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Amazing body of work Joe. I can only admire your guts for doing these climbs. I would die of a heart attack (from fear) before i would get 2 feet up the antenna. When will you do the CN Tower in Toronto? 😉

you are an inspiration

LisaNewton says:

on May 27, 2009 at 12:48 am

Wow, I’m just amazed, and speechless.

cheeseong says:

on May 27, 2009 at 7:18 am

Hard to get the chance to shoot at these photos. Nice work!

Balliolman says:

on May 27, 2009 at 7:18 am

Gotta love reading these stories of your intrepid streak, Joe. Great photos made even more impressive by seeing the shots of the rigging needed to get them. Great stuff!


Charles Martin says:

on May 27, 2009 at 8:22 am

Tell me it is not so…Joe McNally retired or worse yet, passed away. The last time I saw a retrospective like this someone was “gone”.

Past or present, your shoots never fail to impress!

Will says:

on May 27, 2009 at 8:43 am

These are amazing images and a great story. Have you always been a climber or did this start out of necessity for the shot? I can’t see you just waking up one morning in New York and hiking it up one of those buildings. Also your new book ‘HSD’ is incredible. Thank you for knowledge you convey in each section.



Don says:

on May 27, 2009 at 8:59 am

Awesome photography Joe.
Daytona Beach Area

Tony Pettis says:

on May 27, 2009 at 9:02 am

OK, now that my legs have stopped wobbling as I sit here in my office chair …

I absolutely cannot imagine taking those images. Petrified doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of fear that I would have if I had to climb any of those venues. I am thankful that there are people like you who can do it, but if that’s the only kind of photography there was to practice, then, well, I guess I’d be SOL.

Jamie Willmott says:

on May 27, 2009 at 9:15 am

Top stuff!

Glenn says:

on May 27, 2009 at 9:30 am

F—-ing Cool Joe , Stories like that make me want to be a professional photographer. I mean It!

Chase says:

on May 27, 2009 at 10:08 am

Wow, everytime I see these shots of yours, my hands start to sweat….awesome shots!

Sheldon Reich says:

on May 27, 2009 at 10:10 am

Great post!!!

I’m just wondering, since Vincent Laforet also shot the Chrysler gargoyles (I believe for an Apple Aperture ad) is this shot like achieving a black belt for pros?

I’m always looking for super vantage points but the men in blue won’t let me climb bridges, subway platforms, etc.

And, certainly not with a camera!

Thanks for sharing these super shots…

jrrome says:

on May 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Big Ones, McNally. You got Big Ones.
Rock on.

Lindsey says:

on May 27, 2009 at 1:13 pm

WTF, Joe? You are certifiably insane! Amazing images, as always!

Keith Allen says:

on May 27, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Haha in that last shot, the add for Aiwa Stereo Cassette Systems! Shows the age of this along with the bulbs!

Great photos in this post!

P.S. I’m not afraid of heights, but you made me think twice after seeing these! Crazy heights!

Susan says:

on May 27, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Great, but no props to Margaret Burke White? She did do all of this first after all.

Peter Tsai says:

on May 27, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Great shots no fear. That skier too – very brave… no harnesses!

I believe Vince went up after you because he seemed to have all sorts of safety harnesses in his shots.

Thanks for your posts – I always enjoy them.

Ben Yew says:

on May 27, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Absolutely Brilliant!!!..I have seen that shots many time and i still never get bored with it.

Cole says:

on May 27, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Wonderful shots….Lewis W. Hine would approve. (never get me up there).

Mark Skelton says:

on May 28, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Great pics Joe – I believe they’re looking for someone to change to bulb at the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai. Looks like you’re a shoe in..

romain lhuissier says:

on May 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Incredible work Joe, I couldn’t be so high, even climbing a house frightens me…
Each time I see this pictures, I feel in danger !
Greetings and thank you for sharing your experiences !

Jeremy Sale says:

on May 29, 2009 at 9:37 am

Love this stuff most of all, Joe. I connect with that part of you that just wants to climb the bastard – photo or no.

I have been fortunate enough as an amateur to talk a few people into letting me shoot some out-of-bounds stuff. That’s half the thrill – convincing them that you know what you’re doing.

It’s ironic that we live in a time where not only are there way more daring kids out there, who’ll climb and shoot anything to out-YouTube each other; but that our legal system practically forbids us from walking without a helmet (or photograph anything in a city, for that matter).

Marshal says:

on May 29, 2009 at 11:36 pm

I’ve always been a bit afraid of heights. Flying in a plane doesn’t bother me, but looking off the edge of a tall building will. The only way you or anyone else would get me up to the top of Empire State or John Hancock Buildings like that, especially at the very top of that mast would be by strapping a parachute on my back and showing me the rip cord & backup cord. And even then,…nah, there’s just no way I’d do that.

The kind of guys who do that work, including changing bulbs and especially constructing those buildings who walk around on those beams(or girders?)every day have balls the size of nobody’s business. My hats off to them!

Mark Astmann says:

on June 1, 2009 at 6:41 am

My heart is in my mouth just looking at the photographs. I can only imagine how you must have felt taking them. Scary!!!

frank meo says:

on June 4, 2009 at 11:07 am

Okay, dream with me for a second. There are no stock photo houses. There are only ad agencies that are creating great ads for great clients who are creating great products who need great shooters to photograph their product and services. What a dream!!!

Well, from what people tell me and my own experience, that’s the way it used to be. So many ads that photographers turned down work. Can you imagine?

So what happened? We all know what happened, stock photography happened. We let it happen. It’s our fault.

You could stop here and debate, cry, point fingers and do the same old dance. I believe the time for that crap is over. It’s time to zig.

The reason you must act is simple, if you don’t you are guaranteed to be out of business in six months.

We have to reposition stock photography in the consumer’s mind. Think of it as a product that needs to be called to task. Should we hire an ad agency? This would be a great pro bono project.

We’re the client with a better product and a proven track record. The clients represented in this case are: photographers, illustrators, reps and art buyers.

The reason I include art buyers is rather simple. Recently many art buyers with tremendous experience have been dismissed under the guise of cost cutting. It’s clear that their expertise is no longer needed when an art director can simply buy a photo on line by hitting
a key.

We need to get back to a time when agencies, clients, photographers, and reps had guts.

The consumers are the clients and the art buyers. They clients must recognize that the well has run dry. The art buyers must come to understand its self-preservation. It really is that simple.

I purpose that all of us start telling our photographers that they must stop selling and shooting for stock. Reps stop repping anyone who sells stock. Photographers demand
that their rep not represent anyone who sells stock photography. Photographers pull their
images from the stock houses.

The art buyers, when possible, stop using stock. The art buyers are in a tough spot for sure.
I do believe that they will quickly see the self-severing advantage of being a useful tool versus a cog in the spinning wheel.

We all know it; our industry is in a tough space. If we do nothing we only have ourselves to blame. I don’t say all my ideas are right. But I do say, if we do nothing, we’re done.
Status quo is no longer an option. How did we let people who have never taken a photograph, repped a photographer or produced a job take over our business?

Before you react to this letter please go to page 45 of the May issue of PDN. This guy from Shutterbug is selling images for $10 and sees himself as the Armand Hammer of the 21st Century.

The next move is yours.

Please feel free to forward this to all.

Frank Meo
212 643 7428
220 12th Ave., 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10001

Mary says:

on June 8, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I’m dizzy just looking at the pictures!!!

imajes says:

on June 9, 2009 at 12:02 am

I was in NY on May the week before and after the 26th looking to get permission to shoot on top of some tall buildings. Sadly [and possibly thankfuly as I really loathe heights], I didn’t have time to find the person who would say yes to my ideas for shooting on the gargoyles and other such places, but I did get a good vantage point for using the Empire state as a backdrop. My subject was also far more willing to bellydance on the edge of a 31 story drop than the supervisor who nearly had a heart attack watching her do so.
First two shots here –

I have to say you get a lot less hassle in NY doing photography than back here in the UK, as I would probably have been arrested/jailed/had camera seized by the police here for doing the same things here, particularly as police were in some shots – which is nearly a capital punishment offence in UK these days.

Nike Kobe IV says:

on June 9, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Wow,very cool!!! but no props to Margaret Burke White? She did do all of this first after all.

Jack Thompson says:

on December 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm

I agree you just like to climb stuff, but don’t we all?

dave says:

on October 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Just looking at those picture gave me a tightness in my gut. I can’t stand heights. The guys climbing up the radio antenna made me whoozy. Thanks!

Nerfy says:

on May 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm

As teenagers in the 70s…every time we went up to the 86th floor observatory on the ESB, we’d try to get on the roof somehow or another. We never could. Still, had we done it & got up on top, we’d no doubt have fought eachother to be first to climb to the top of that antenna & touch the very tip top of the light (or @ the very least, smoke a joint up there.) Just for the bragging rights. We were crazy then. Incredible photos all !

Soumen Nath says:

on October 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Amazing work. I can only imagine how you do it.
Kudos to you.

Chris says:

on October 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

Impressive! This was part of my inspiration to become a tower climber.

Meaghan Frayer says:

on December 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Hi I Like Your Blog cant say I come here often but im loving what i c so far….

Click To Shoot Photography says:

on October 14, 2013 at 1:54 am

Wow, Nice to see your blog Joe, been a long time fan of some of your tuts/blogs on photography. Always nice to find some inspiration from the works of masters like you!

Shadowman says:

on December 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’ve read a few of Joe McNally’s books so I knew I would see something spectacular.

Neeraj Agnihotri says:

on March 27, 2014 at 7:51 am

I just came across this blog and really enjoyed reading it. Good work.

Erik N says:

on April 20, 2014 at 4:13 am

Wow. Thank you for sharing this. I’m not good with heights, but I enjoyed reading about your experience, and seeing these great photos. I’m actually watching the interview with you by Mia McCormick on kelbyone right now. Really interesting stuff.

Ashish says:

on June 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Amazing Work….Kudos

Venue Pick says:

on February 10, 2015 at 2:04 pm

I cannot believe those shots and I’m just amazed, and speechless. It is very challenging job and I appreciate your work.

Karan Labra says:

on April 18, 2015 at 4:01 am

Wow, it’s amazing how far you can go to take photographs. Good job man!

R K Images says:

on May 14, 2015 at 2:39 am

Awesome work … loved the idea

Venue Look says:

on June 9, 2015 at 4:04 am

It is hard to believe and too much risk taking jobs. Great !!!!

candid wedding photographer in gurgoan says:

on June 23, 2015 at 2:02 am

nice website

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