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George, Seattle, and the Clouds

Mar 10

In Friends, Rambling at 10:23am

Had breakfast and coffee with George Divoky yesterday. Breakfast was the smaller part of it, actually. What we really did was have coffee together, which is what you do in Seattle. It is basically a sacrament here, the having of the coffee. George and I grew to be friends, really, over coffee. George is an ornithologist, and he has done the remarkable thing of studying a colony of Black Guillemonts on Cooper Island since 1975. Every year, for three months, George goes up there to this barren stretch of ice north of Barrow, Alaska, and lives in the most basic of conditions with these birds, observing their trends, their mating patterns, and their migratory habits. He might have gone up there to study the birds all those years ago, but the amazing consistency of his visits has resulted in a trove of first hand, irrefutable evidence of weather trends, the melting of the ice pack, and the resultant impact on the cycle of life up there, and hence, everywhere.

I spent a mere nine days on Cooper and I can tell you, there isn’t a Marriott in sight. It is basic tent living, out there with the birds and the polar bears. To do it, as George has, for 36 years, is a tale of dedication, a labor of love, and an inquisitive mind. His notebooks are a road map of changes in the weather and the earth, all observed firsthand. And, while he’s a dedicated scientist, he’s also got a great sense of humor, which was the basis of our friendship struck out there on the ice ten years ago. He’s an amazing guy, the subject of many magazine interviews, a coming book, an appearance on David Letterman, and even a play in London. You can check out his activities and observations here, at Friends of Cooper Island.

Outside of having friends like George,  I do love being here in Seattle. Nice city, nice folks. I have a theory. I feel it’s very important that it remains resolutely cloudy here, every day. Hear me out. The unrelenting cloud cover produces a wonderful sort of torpor, a blanket, if you will, that one can continuously crawl under and, well, yawn the day away. No pressure, no people shouting at you to get out their damn way, no subways jammed with folks eyeballing each other suspiciously.

It’s come to that in the NY subway, by the way. In this age of the dominance of the internet, there is the phenomenon of newspaper-less commuting. Used to be, even in the most crowded of trains, you could avert your eyes, and bury yourself in a Cindy Adams column, or the antics of celebrities caught with their pants down on Page Six, or be engaged by a clever headline. Now that most riders are no longer armed with a tabloid or the even more effective camouflage of a broadsheet, they’re left to balefully, soullessly glare at each other with doubt and regret, if not outright aggression, as after all, the best defense is a good offense, or something like that. Thus when the apparently blind, legless person on a trolley (think Eddie Murphy in Trading Places) with the incredibly bad singing voice pushes themselves and their tin cup through the crowded car, most straphangers no longer have the pup tent of a daily newspaper to dive into until they move on or shut up. It probably works out well for the down on his luck supplicant, as there are always lots of newcomers to the NYC subway system who haven’t seen the trolley bound tenor before, and thus donate some change and hope they vanish into the next car. Little do they know that some of the folks who work the subways might actually own three taxi medallions and have multiple rental properties in Brooklyn, and for them, the subway thing is a part time gig.

Back to Seattle. Even the cab drivers here don’t honk their horn. Amazing. Again, methinks, those soporific, mellow mood inducing clouds at work. Geez, I even walked through a building yesterday and from the speakers came drifting Seals and Crofts, fer chrissakes.

Enter the coffee. You see, there’s a synergy here. A place like this would probably pull a Rip Van Winkle and just drift off  entirely to sleep were it not for the bountiful, splendid variety of good tasting caffeine. The coffee sort of meets the clouds halfway and produces just the right mix of energy and conversational connectivity that enables everyone to hold down a job even though they spend a good deal of the day chatting or tweeting or emailing in a beanery. It’s a beautiful thing. I would move here in a heartbeat, except that I’m just generally too antsy. Put me near this much coffee and I couldn’t help myself. It would be an irresistibly frequent and dangerous combination,  like a moth to flame, Stockton to Malone, Charlie Sheen and saying something irretrievably stupid.

This is all just a theory, but I think I’m onto something…..more tk….

hd says:

on March 10, 2011 at 10:29 am

nice column. shame you couldn’t do it with out mentioning you-know-who in that last sentence. next time?

Kyle jerichow says:

on March 10, 2011 at 10:38 am

Two Charlie Sheen zingers in two days, Joe you’re on a role.

Safe Travels, Joe and Drew.


Gregg says:

on March 10, 2011 at 10:46 am

“Charlie Sheen and saying something irretrievably stupid”

If, at some point, there is no longer the urge to retrieve the stupid, even the exceedingly stupid, is it still irretrievably stupid? I’m just sayin’ is all…

Dave Block says:

on March 10, 2011 at 10:49 am

Welcome to Seattle Joe! Look forward to seeing you on Friday @ the flash bus…

William Chinn says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:06 am

Off the topic subject: Photographer rewards

National Geographic is now selling their top 50 photos as an app for money + ads. Do the photographers of these photos get any monetary reward years later with new technology? or is that a new legal point in the hiring contract?

See you in a sold out Flashbus in Los Angeles. Sorry, no costumes for a downtown Los Angeles venue. There are enough of those outside as it is. It take courage to photograph patrons of a Laker game at Staples and a Country Western concert at Nokia next door. ==> purple and gold wigs and buckskin fringe with cowboy hats.

Gregg says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:07 am

You have met, and befriended, some of the most incredible people in the world.

Terri Jacobson says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:18 am

Welcome to the Northwest.

See ya Saturday.

Joe McNally says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:35 am

nice one! :-)

Mark Olwick says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:48 am

Welcome to Seattle, Joe.

JBelle says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:53 am

Welcome to the Northwest, indeed.

Aaron Brethorst says:

on March 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

Welcome to Seattle! I think I see some blue sky outside right now. Of course, there’s supposed to be another deluge later today. In addition to the coffee, make sure you try a local pint or two of beer. I recommend Manny’s or Mac and Jack’s. We’re as serious about our locally-produced downers as we are about our uppers.

Grant Rosenquist says:

on March 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm

True, its pretty gray mid-October till well into July. Then its simply glorious; coffee gives way to evenings on the deck at Ray’s, watching the sun go down behind the Olympic Mountains with a couple of Microbeers, some fresh local halibut and greens. Sunsets about 9pm as I recall. Most natives gladly trade one or two of those evenings for the nine months of the other stuff…

Gawd I miss Seattle.

John Swarce says:

on March 10, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Great story, Joe. I hope to someday make it to the Northwest, clouds and all.

Can’t wait to see you in Boston for the FB tour(and at PSW!)!


Alex Grace says:

on March 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I wish I could live in Seattle too… Beautiful place, nice people, sure beats the blah-ness of the mid-west!

PS: That’s probably the only time I’ll ever see John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Charlie Sheen in the same sentence!

Ted McAusher says:

on March 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

You know the world Joe, and if Seattle is a place worth seeing to you, I’d like to see it too. I agree with your theory too, I think climate in general can have a lot to do with the culture created in a society.

Lori Rowles says:

on March 10, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Hey come on…you get used to the jitters! Plus, I may actually be able to attend one of your talks if you were in Seattle! It’s a cool and diverse place to live.

Stacy Borden says:

on March 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I lived in the PNW for 10 years. I miss the cozy cloud blanket. It’s very comforting.

Gene says:

on March 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm

That sums up the Seattle scene nicely Joe. Watch those clouds though. Once in awhile they open up and let the sun peak in on us. At those times we can get amazing textures in the sky, kind of like a show for which the entry fee is just a moment of your life.

Legend has it that the one upon whom such rays of sun doth fall, if at said moment be indulging a high potency caffeinated drink, will inherit the blessing of a smile and good cheer.

Doug says:

on March 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Yet another reason to have an iPad in NY for those subway rides. It’s not as big as a newspaper, but could serve the same purpose.

Erika Plummer says:

on March 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Joe – Portland is I believe MORE fanatical about coffee (these are fighting words I know). Much like wine is to Napa Coffee is to Portland. Barristas here are truly rock stars. And then we have Portlandia. A place where young people come to retire….so excited to see you here Saturday!!!

Richard Chan says:

on March 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I think you’re on to something. I just flew from Southern California, where I’d spent four days, to Seattle and the driving experience between the two was night-and-day. SoCal was bright, sunny (85 degrees over the weekend!), frantic and in a hurry-a really big hurry, probably to the next traffic light. Seattle was, well, Seattle. Busy enough, but definitely less tense and definitely overcast with a touch of rain. As a denizen of Spokane, where things are even more laid back, it was like visiting two different worlds.
Unfortunately, I’m going to miss the bus. Perhaps next time…

Vladimir says:

on March 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Welcome to Seattle! An interesting take on our weather and psychology. There’s definitely something special about this place. Without the long, gray winter, would people here be so earnest in worshiping the sun? Super stoked to attend the FlashBus kickoff tomorrow!

Steve Chapman says:

on March 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Welcome to Seattle Joe. I’m anticipating alot of fun tomorrow at the Convention Center. How many of us are you packing into that place anyway???? I’ve heard someone says “thousands”….true or not, it will be worth fighting the traffic to see you and David.

Steve says:

on March 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Yes, welcome to the PNW, Joe–looking forward to the Flash Bus Saturday in PDX–and very glad we’re catching you and Dave early on the tour, before you work out the kinks–should be fun.

Greg Pittman says:

on March 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Mr. McNally:
You are my photog hero – an awesome, fiercely generous to your audience, and unimaginably creative. I own every book you have written, every video and DVD you have made, watched every single minute of Kelby training videos, and have generally enjoyed your photography and teaching more than I can possibly express. I am anxiously awaiting news from Amazon that your new book Sketching With Light has been released, and I am trying to wait patiently for the Flashbus’ arrival to Dallas/Ft.Worth. Your unique ability to relate to your audience through potentially impersonal mediums, like video, is nothing short of extraordinary. I really feel as though I know you. And the fact that I am going to attend your flashbus workshop in-person is just so so so cool. This must be more than a little weird for you to be reading such gush, so I will stop now.

I work for a rural Meals on Wheels program, which served over 379,009 meals last year to the elderly. We face a precarious new set of funding challenges which can only be overcome with a very solid grass roots campaign to raise money. I believe that with a strong message, backed-up with solid creative imagery, that I can one day learn to express our vision with light through photography. And if I can do so half as well as you can blindfolded, I will truly be able to help our program meet our goal of eradicating senior hunger. Hyperbole aside, I would think that drinking coffee with Joe McNally would be the highlight of any reasonable photographer’s day. I can’t wait to spend an afternoon with the legend. My own kind of rockstar. Here’s to you.


jeff heinz says:

on March 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm

If it were not for Microsoft, there would be no antsy people here. You would do fine here Joe!
Hey can we name a cup of coffee after you??? Wait, thats already been done!
Looking forward to The Flash Bus tomorrow.

Mike says:

on March 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Another hearty and heavily caffeinated “Welcome to Seattle” Joe. I’m really looking forward to the day tomorrow!

R.J. says:

on March 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Great story…do people even know what broadsheets are anymore?

David says:

on March 11, 2011 at 10:06 am

I’m thinking Jimmy Buffet when I read your prose. Ya gotta write a ‘non-photography’ book! Yeah!

Lee says:

on March 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I really like the picture …the pink in the sky is beautiful.

Michael Rowe says:

on March 11, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Great job today Joe! Really enjoyed the event. Have a great trip!

Patrick Love says:

on March 12, 2011 at 1:12 am

Hey Joe,

Saw you today on your first stop of the Flash Bus tour. I have paid a lot more on several occasions for photo workshops, and this ranks right up there. Thanks to you and the sponsors.
Since the Q&A time, I have thought of a few questions that I would still like answered… 😉
1) When will a D700 successor be announced?
2) Do you know the true identity of fakechuckwestfall?
3) Can you recommend a workshop that focuses more on developing the photographer as a person, as opposed to technical skills?

Ron Martinsen says:

on March 12, 2011 at 1:29 am

Great show today Joe!

Ron Martinsen says:

on March 12, 2011 at 2:31 am

Oh, and I put my review of the show today on my blog –

You guys did a great job so I suspect you’ll enjoy it.

Eric says:

on March 12, 2011 at 3:01 am

Wonderful job today at the Flash Bus Joe. You are an amazingly gifted storyteller and observer of the human condition – and with the technical and artistic skill you possess in photography these gifts are really able to manifest themselves in your work. It was a pleasure to meet you – you are a huge inspiration and you and David were two of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. Thanks again for bringing your knowledge to the masses.

mike says:

on March 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

Great flashbus kickoff yesterday! Was helpful to get to see you in action and get some first hand experience with how you get it done. You know, your 2nd jump was *really good*, I think your assistant holding the commander had his finger over the transmitter (gak!). Maybe consider holding handheld flashes by edges or via a bracket. Have a great rest of the flashbus tour!

Mike says:

on March 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Great seminar yesterday in Seattle, guys. I learned a ton, and also learned I have ton left to learn. Pretty exciting. Have a great one in Portland. I’m sure it’ll be great.

DougFelts says:

on March 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Great having you here, Joe.

Oh, and one thing I didn’t get to ask you yesterday… what was it like making that movie with John Travolta and Tim Allen? You know, the one where you guys are all on motorcycles? You don’t talk much about that part of your life…

Had a great day at the Flash Bus Tour. Thanks!

roninseattle says:

on March 13, 2011 at 2:52 am

I’m glad to see, joe, that you didn’t mention the R word about Seattle, as we get slammed for that way too much. clouds, yes, but rain, NYC get 10+” more than us.

By way, while we were in the flash lecture Friday the lighting outside in real world Seattle was amazing. I hope you had a chance to see that later in the day.

Thanks for a great afternoon. r

Roger L. Maier says:

on March 15, 2011 at 2:33 am

Joe, I am very happy that you have belatedly taken some clouds and rain with you. You’re welcome to them as I am sick of them. I dream of the cloudless Big Sky of Montana, whence I came. However, we here in the land of rainshine should have some sun this weekend. However, I truly thank you and David Hobby for extremely worthwhile day in Seattle. I wish you buckets of caffeine on your 29-day tour across this great land of America.

Laura says:

on March 18, 2011 at 5:25 am

Love the Stockton to Malone reference. See you in New York.

Joni says:

on March 22, 2011 at 8:26 am

Oh I adore the photo.

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