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Starting Off, Looking Back

Jan 2

In history at 8:39am

2012. Twenty years ago, at this time I was headlong into shooting my first cover story for the National Geographic. Lots of clicks downstream from that now, to be sure. (Most of them, blessedly and appropriately, remain unseen. So many bad frames in pursuit of the few worth spending time with.)  And changes. Man, is that an understatement. High res digital cameras have replaced film cameras. Hard drives store pictures, not little yellow boxes. Kodak’s stopped making carousel projectors. Photographers go to the magazine far less often, given digital transmission. Ties and jackets are seen less frequently.

But, the main mission, over time, has remained. Tell a good story in pictures. The major components–photographer, picture editor, designer, magazine editor–are all still in place, and the interplay among them is ongoing and largely unchanged.

This video looped on a continuous basis in Explorer’s Hall at the headquarters of Geographic for many years, and was seen by lots school groups, tourists and visitors. Geographic graciously gave us permission to put it on the blog. It’s a fun interior look at how the magazine puts a story together, if you can stand the time warp and the truly embarrassing haircut I had back then.

Here’s the funny thing about persistence. Bill Douthitt and I are still at it. We start another story in a couple of weeks. Like unruly children, we refuse to pipe down or go away. Bill continues to shape coverages as only he can, and his warped brilliance remains a lifeline when things don’t go well in the field, as is often the case. (He won a Picture Editor of the Year award for his efforts on the sight story. And in the video, he actually appears rational.)  The upper echelon of magazine management is all different now, of course. Bill Marr art directs the look of the book. And the shop is run by a photographer, Chris Johns, which is appropriate, given the pictorial bent of the magazine. As a shooter, in the field, he turned a two lane strip of pavement into one my favorite stories ever published in the magazine–The Hard Ride of Route 93.

The people change, but the pictures remain. I look forward to shooting some more of them in 2012.

More tk….

91 Responses to “Starting Off, Looking Back”

Darren Elias says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:08 am

That was incredible to watch. Thanks for sharing it.

How does it make you feel, Joe, when you watch this 20 year leap into your past and what had to be an amazing sense of pressure and accomplishment?

Tim Shahady says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

is that Matt Damon playing McNally? Thanks for the share! I love learning about the process.

Ron Warren says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:12 am

Joe, 20 years ago, you looked like Matt Damon. You’ve certainly come a long way!

cedric pittman says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:17 am

Thanks Joe, that was my first look inside the sausage machine. Interesting process, i really enjoyed seeing that. and of course your look almost stole every seen… Nice!

Chris Deakin says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:25 am

Enjoyed the video. I won’t make any comment on the haircut, we’ve all had “unique” cuts at some point. It’s the mustache I’m having a hard time with.

Funny how quickly you get used to new things. It looked very odd not to see anything on the camera back. It looks like camera was missing something.

Having been born and raised on slide film I do miss it.

Thanks for more insight.

Kyle Jerichow says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:28 am

It’s not the hair that you should have been concerned about, Joe…..its the mustache!

(My dad had one just like it…though I still cannot grow one to save my life)

All the best,

Frank says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:36 am

My God that is impressive! I’ve never seen a more bitchin’ mustache. The photography aspect of this video is pretty cool as well. I’m going to dig my copy out of the closet and have you autograph it someday.

Kitty says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:39 am

That was very interesting. The amount of work and thought behind a final story surtaxes for granted by many viewers. The cover image was stunning.
Thank you for sharing.

Charles E. Carstensen says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

Perfect. Thank you for publishing this. Now I know I was born 20 years too soon.

Jeff Toates says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:45 am

Thanks for sharing Joe…Great insight into how your world used to be.

Don Carrick says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:46 am

Thanks so much for posting this on your blog. As a map researcher at the Geographic I knew Bill, Connie and Alan… was even lucky enough to sit in on a few picture reviews. Came up to PA to work for Baldwin Hardware in 1995 and have lost touch with most of those guys. Great to see them again. Thanks, Don

PS: FlashBus Tour was a lot of fun. Saw you in Philly.

Carl Licari says:

on January 2, 2012 at 9:58 am

How’s that saying go…. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Thanks for the insight Joe.


Glenn Orion says:

on January 2, 2012 at 10:05 am

Glad to see you still working with the same tenacity and passion all these years later! If I could be even just a tenth as driven as you, I could die happy.

Not that I’m in a rush, though.

Thanks for being an inspiration, Joe! Happy New Year.

Tim Skipper says:

on January 2, 2012 at 10:32 am


Very cool video thanks for sharing. BTW I wouldn’t worry about the hair cut as much as I would that mustache :)

Andreas says:

on January 2, 2012 at 10:37 am

I did enjoy watching the video a lot. It is incredible what an amount of work is put in one story. I am impressed.

On hairy side: did not really recognize you until you started talking :)


Marty Fox says:

on January 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

Fascinating video, I can see why they chose to loop it for the public. I have to say that the haircut and the stache’ didn’t seem as funny to me as that suit. Very Fantasy Island lol. Look forward to sitting in on your lighting stuff at PSW in D.C. Great post as always.

Patrik Lindgren says:

on January 2, 2012 at 11:14 am

Well dont worry about the hair, i think it´s the mustache that is stealing all the attention here. :)

Seriously though, i think it´s very fascinating that one can publish a story over 40 pages, that is not especially common nowadays. But every other magazine is not the National Geographic. :)
Very cool to be there and be engaged from start to finish, that is not that common in my field of work. Sometimes the time between the pictures is taken and put to print is incredibly short. That´s the way these days and that´s the way i´m used to.

Thank you for sharing, as always, interesting material.

Anibal J Morillo says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I’ve just finished enjoying your book on my iPad, which is where I found your blog address. Your book was a major lot of fun, I consider myself a serious amateur photog. Most of the stuff I already knew about, but you are not only an outstanding photographer but a very knowledgeable and entertaining teacher that really knows its way with words. Great book for almost any level of previous knowledge or interest in photography, shaky you very much. I know of no other way to thank you but to share some of my pictures. I am a radiologist, so I work with images each and every day in my life, which, for the photographer in me, is a fun way to make a living!
(I write in spanish, but the images are in the universal language you call light).

Any time please check my blog: http://www.ajmorillo.blogspot.com

A preview in which I tried to play with light and windows and a polarizer:


Best Regards,


MaryT says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Thanks for sharing that Joe! I really enjoyed seeing that! What jumped out at me (aside from your “look” which is as much changed as mine lol) was the reinforcement of my long held feeling that it is the emotion of a picture that makes it. I always strive for that, enduring the technical aspects as best I can – and am so grateful for all the great teachers (like you!) who help me there.

My best and a Happy New Year to you and yours!

Skip Barber says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for sharing the video. It was interesting to learn how the process went 20 years ago. Please tell us how it has changed today, since you are still telling your story through words and photos.

Don France says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for sharing the video — great view into the behind the scenes at Nat Geo and what it takes to get those stories in the book!
I think the video also answers the question — whatever happened to Moose Peterson’s long lost brother?

Brian says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Not Matt Damon, William H Macy

Alan MacRae says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Joe, great video! Thank you for sharing with us all. How cool to have Matt Damon play your part in the opening section! Happy New Year to you and Annie!

Karen B says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Enjoyed this video immensely. The interplay among all of you “major components” along with the time and dedication in telling one complete story as it came to life was excellent. Such a great share….thanks!

Frank Burch says:

on January 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm

It’s easy to see why you continue to shoot for National Geographic. Being part of such an amazing process, and bringing these wonderful stories to so many readers, has to be as fulfilling a mission as any photographer could embrace. Oh, and you rock in that khaki safari photo vest!

Janet says:

on January 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Wow! Thanks for posting this–fascinating.

Margaret says:

on January 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Great video… amazing process and wow, some real changes are seen in the 20 y/o video! Thanks for sharing.

James Bong says:

on January 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Great video! Many thanks to Nat Geo for letting you show it.

With that haircut and mustache, you look like a young William H. Macy crossed with a little Matt Damon.

Thanks again for all your wonderful blogs.

Roger de la Harpe says:

on January 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Hi Joe. Wow! Brought back memories of another time. Slides! The thing that got to me though was the suits. I don’t even own one these days…!

Had the wonderful privilege of working with Chris some years ago. I don’t think that he realised it but he taught me more about photography than anyone else, before or since. Please say hi when next you speak to him.


Glyn Dewis says:

on January 2, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Wonderful video and ‘look back’ Joe. Strange how watching it, it took me a moment to remember that you weren’t shooting digital and that it was when you said about ‘not feeling it’ it hit home that you were shooting film.

Wonderful insight,
Thanks for sharing,

Tim says:

on January 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Hey didn’t I see of picture of you with Scott Kelby in the same punk rock band?!

Grippi says:

on January 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm

sweet fanny pack

Bob says:

on January 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm

1200 rolls of film…1200 rolls of film…over 40,000 images…

boiled down like a reduction sauce to 40 images.

awesome Joe!

Regi Varghese says:

on January 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Thanks for sharing. Surely great to see more tight and intense editing than the one I was involved in my 14 years in publishing.
Good luck always.

Craig Beyers says:

on January 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm

I’m fascinated that you–the photographer–were the primary presenter during the story presentations to the editorial staff. I’d thought the photo editor might do that as the lead or the writer might do it as the author. The teamwork in assembling the story–especially the role of the layout editor–is impressive and explains why NatGeo has been such a powerful magazine. Thanks for the back-room insight on how it’s done; appreciated.

Sara Lando says:

on January 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm

When it comes to you I always get this sense of craft and passion and hard work and building stuff one block at the time.
It’s balance and lack of ego and team work (stress on “work”) and in a world of “you’re going to become a great photographer in a weekend” workshops, this is at the same time frustrating to hear and much needed.

(P.S. Epic ‘stache)

Ivan Boden says:

on January 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm

What a great clip! (not the haircut, the movie). I remember those days (I’m a graphic designer) well. Saddens me to see these great magazines and big budgets disappear.

Mike hesley says:

on January 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Thanks for sharing that video! Lots of work! More… Lots of fun! You work well inside a photographic system! Your legacy will be as an inspiration for a few generations of photogs. Have you read the book “Outliers?” Thanks Joe!

You look like a bad-ass! But, then again, we all looked great 20 years ago!

John A. says:

on January 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Thanks for sharing this! Awesome look in to the behind the scenes. I was really amazed at how much input you had in the selection process. I always thought it was more of a hand off to editors then they do the work sort of thing.

It was really cool seeing all of your photos too, there was a lot of moving images there and I especially love the photo of the single eye.

..oh, glad you ditched the ‘stache too. ;)

Arturo S. Ramirez says:

on January 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I really enjoyed that video and seeing what happens behind the scene.

Thanks so much for sharing it.

I ordered your new book last week and am eagerly awaiting it.

Bill Trudo says:

on January 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Just a fascinating piece of video, the time warp was just as interesting as the feature itself. I remember this time of my life very well, I had just gotten married a few months before. It brings home how much has changed, and what can happen in a decade or two. How many memory cards would you need today, and would you need to shoot as much? I’ve seen worse haircuts, but at least you still have most of your hair, unlike me!

Sid Hastings says:

on January 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Thanks for posting this video, always nice to see another really nice production by former NGS video producer Doug Paynter. And nice to be reminded how a place with a commitment to telling stories with photos approaches the process. Things might change with the march of technology, but the key is great images shot and selected to tell the story.

Jeremy says:

on January 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Really enjoyed the video. Thanks.

Libby says:

on January 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Joe you look like some bad parallel universe version of Jimmy Olson ;-) The video is great and even after 20 years, so much can be learned here. Enjoying your book. You have a great New Year!

Sam Cumberbatch says:

on January 2, 2012 at 7:56 pm

What a way to start 2012, excellent video. You not only took us back to the film days but you give us great insight into the ‘behind the scene’ of you as a photographer, the editors and publishers of Nat Geo magazine. Great respect to you Joe!

Thanks for sharing.


Rick Lewis says:

on January 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Terrific post Joe. Have a Great New Year! Thanks for the memories!!

Sterling says:

on January 2, 2012 at 10:42 pm

sick lip sweater! Did you fill it in with a jiffy marker?

Bruce Norman says:

on January 2, 2012 at 11:28 pm


Fantastic look back at the process of putting a Geographic story together. We all looked a little different when we “wore a younger man’s clothes”. I’ve enjoyed seeing your images, reading your stories, and learning from you over the years.


Anthony C says:

on January 2, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Dude, don’t worry about that haircut AT ALL. You looked like a tough Marine!

Great video.

Marc Roman Bravo says:

on January 3, 2012 at 2:26 am

Thanks, Joe! Always an inspiration

Alan West says:

on January 3, 2012 at 5:29 am

Thanks for sharing Joe, very informative.

Bryan says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

look’n good Joe. how 20 years makes a difference to the process and just how much remains the same hay? i enjoyed the story and seeing the process, thanks for sharing and all the very best for 2012

Tom says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:31 am

I don’t know. The voice is familiar…..

I remember 20 years ago, photographers in London would conduct all assignments dressed in good suits. I have a photograph of myself in the middle of a riot, dripping from head to toe in paint someone had thrown, otherwise still looking immaculate.

Rich Cave says:

on January 3, 2012 at 8:08 am

Film, brings back memories,

shot an airshow with the F5, remembering changing film 36 times during the course of the event, nothing better than reviewing all those negs on return.

Digital is easier for confirmation but I miss sitting at the table of death with a picture editor. Just wiring it in is not the same, and you develop faster as a tog when you have to face the dreaded editor.

The video shows how much of a collabrative process it should be, with the net that collabration has become impersonal and lost. I remember some quite heated debates on images going through. I miss that.

Thanks for sharing, and as for the haircut and tasche, no mention of Boogie Nights will leave my lips, woops!

Rob Hammer says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:38 am

What a creepshow with that mustache! Haha. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Javier Montero says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:43 am

Fantástic video!!!
Thanks again Joe….you are a master!

MikeScott says:

on January 3, 2012 at 10:38 am

Thanks, Joe. But enquiring minds want to know – what’s the theme of the story you’re about to start shooting?

James says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:29 am

Who knew that Andy Richter was an editor at NG in a former life. That’s a great video. Very Interesting to see how it works – more interaction than I would have realized.

Kenneth Barney says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:31 am

Thanks Joe for sharing! I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s waiting for the next issue of NatGeo, though my father never tripped a shutter, he was always amazed at the beautiful photos found in those pages and as a young boy the magazine was my way of discovering the world and the more i discovered the more i wanted to photograph it! To this day I can’t wait to get my next issue and see where the photographer will take me.

Mitch Alcala says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

Thank you for sharing Joe, me being a young photographer it’s just great to see how it was once done. Also, really think you should grow out the mustache again… that was pure style.

David K says:

on January 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Joe and a ‘tie’. WOW, times they are a changing. What a wonderful exposure to the behind the scene environment in the mag world, especially from the best in the business. Thank you and NatGeo for sharing.
Happy New Year.

Diego James Robles says:

on January 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I don’t know what I was expecting but when I saw the images, I was blown away. That magazine piece came out really nice Mr. McNally.

Gordon Schmidt says:

on January 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm

That was William H. Macy, wasn’t it?

Fascinating behind the scenes view of one of my favorite magazines. 1,200 rolls of film, 40 pages, 80 shots. What an epic project! That’s a lot of little yellow boxes! Thanks for sharing this Joe. Always love your work.

Happy New Year!

Ron Hiner says:

on January 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe! The tie and the haircut (and that beautifully tailored jacket) are long gone, but the story still stands strong to this day. Work like yours and Bill’s are the very reason people keep shelves and shelves of Geographic for years – and even generations.

Blaise says:

on January 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Wow – fantastic.
This video really hit me. First seeing you 20 years younger – time flies… Then the enormous amount of work that goes into a NG story – mind boggling. The frustration of having your stories and photos cut down. The effort required to convince everyone of the quality of your photos. The teamwork.

This is a whole new area of photography. Do things still work like this in our blog world, where it’s shoot, quick select and post?

M.D. Welch says:

on January 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Thanks for sharing the video Joe. Always wondered about the process.

Happy New Year.


P.S. I loved you in Super Troopers!

Mark says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Really enjoyed the video! I’ve heard you speak in person, and here you look and sound a lot like Matt Damon for some reason heh.

LoriW says:

on January 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You rock, Joe! (The video makes me want to go out and create.) It’s wonderful to see talented individuals working together on a project.

MGA says:

on January 4, 2012 at 12:50 am

Wow thanks for the trip…

Hair Rocked…the mustache…the mustache…the mustache…

Nate Parker says:

on January 4, 2012 at 6:47 am

Awesome! But so funny for the styles and fashions, HA! I had one of those haircuts too, and those dumb striped shirts and the suits, man, so many bad looks. And so many amazing images and an amazing organization, thanks for the inside look!

Huong Bui says:

on January 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Your article says that you have more pictures taken that are kept rather than seen. Maybe you think that they are not worth to be published.
I am a hobby photographer using a Nex system. Sometimes I publish on flickr what I think is a “great” picture and no one comments on it. Other times I publish a “lousy” picture and a lot of people comment on how great a shot it was.
Sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe I have a different take on what is a “great” shot.

Have you ever have not same situation?

John says:

on January 4, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Amazing how far we have come in 20 years. Most of the really important things remain the same.

vincent says:

on January 5, 2012 at 4:19 am

it takes awesome pictures like Joe.
it talks like Joe.
it sounds like Joe.
it looks like J. Jonah Jameson, editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle in the Spiderman comics. ;)

thanks, much enjoyed the video!

James says:

on January 5, 2012 at 10:46 am

Love the suits Joe! Thanks for sharing!

Jef Gibbons says:

on January 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

Amazing video, I remember that magazine!!! Looking forward to learning from you this weekend in Vancouver!

Jeb says:

on January 5, 2012 at 9:53 pm

I would love to see a video of the same process today. Those sessions held in the dark, staring at a projection — it reminded me of film executives watching dailies. Does a version of that still occur?

Aaron @ Become A Photographer says:

on January 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm

That was definitely a look back in time. Hard to believe that was only 20 years ago. But it was very cool getting to see you out there doing your thing.

Glad you were allowed to share this video with us!
Take care, Aaron

Ron Gergely says:

on January 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

That’s before I got into photography Joe. (Although I’m old enough to remember 20 years ago.) It was interesting to say the least how the analog work flow was done from shooting to publishing. Not to mention a cool time piece!

You are without a doubt one of my photo heroes.

Ron Gergely

René says:

on January 9, 2012 at 8:21 am

Excellent video Joe! Thanks for sharing… and Matt Damon won the McNally look-a-like contest! Incredible the similarity!

Steve E Miller says:

on January 20, 2012 at 1:56 am

Joe, wow, what a wonderful video! I loved the way that you, your photo editor, your designer, your editor all worked together in such concert!
Also love the ‘stache :)

Cheers and thank you!


Aaron Babcock says:

on January 24, 2012 at 3:02 pm


Thanks for posting this. I remember this cover and the story. I was really getting going in photographer as a senior in high school and I remember looking at this issue countless times. Funny, how I even recognize the illustrations. What a great trip down memory lane. It’s a testament to a great career. You’re fortunate to have these reminders. Thanks for sharing with us.


Brian says:

on January 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I couldn’t help but notice at the end when you say “I’m happy”, you don’t sound happy at all. You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself you should be happy–40 pages is more than any other magazine would allow, etc. I would guess you were looking forward to having more creative control.

Lashon Liljenquist says:

on February 2, 2012 at 7:10 am

Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss problem? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

andrea says:

on February 2, 2012 at 11:33 am

Matt Damon, totally.


on February 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Great video. One thing I figured out during the video is that it sure helps to have the name Bill if you want a job at Geographic! Allen, Marr, Douthitt, & Graves!

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