responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

An Excerpt from a Letter….

Apr 3

In Rambling, Thoughts at 7:44am

I’ve been corresponding with a young photog, currently in the military, and about to take steps in civilian life. He’s been writing me articulate letters, filled with questions, trying his best to sort out the ongoing mystery of why we do something we continue to suck at most of the time. Not just do it, but love it. He’s had a couple tours in Iraq, and is currently stationed in Asia. A new life is looming, and he’s trying to make a sensible plan for a future in photography, which of course is a future that will defy logic and any measure of common sense. He’s passionate and talented, and wondering which way to go.

I said I’ve been corresponding. That’s quite generous. I’ve been a lousy letter writer. So many times I’ve wanted to respond, and events, an airplane or just plain sleep overtook me. I finally made a stab at a mildly complete answer to his archive of letters, and below is a piece of it. His persistent, thoughtful questions brought me back to a day when I might have made my first successful picture.

You made the choice to follow a photographic path sometime ago, and have followed that path with zeal and passion. That pursuit is something we share, to be sure. When I “found” photography, it drew me like nothing I had ever experienced. Up to that time, I was completely non-committal in all aspects of my life. Indifferent in school, a so-so athlete, just another beer drinking college kid, out there on Marshall St. Never thought about logging the 10,000 hours with anything and certainly hadn’t encountered one thing at that time that seemed to warrant that kind of effort.

But photography! Now this was something that involved the head, heart and hands in equal measure. This was balance. This needed no explanation or defense. It needed to be done. It required work. It became the focus of my life. And, a bit like a big rock blocking the way of the stream and roiling the waters, it has stayed there, in my consciousness, day and night, mocking me, taunting my relentlessly puny efforts. Day after day, year after year, I have gone after that rock, methodically, but sometimes with a vengeance, using the camera in my hands as one would wield a sledge, hoping to break it to bits, crack it open, find the gleaming secret within and thus finally obtain smooth portage.

You know what? After all my blood, sweat and tears, it still sits there, smiling at me. My encounters with it now are more conversational than rage filled and intense. We’ve come to an understanding, I think. I will pass from this earth and it will still be there, ready to taunt the next young pup with a camera in his hands and some big ideas. But there’s an unspoken agreement between the two of us that there were days I hit it hard enough to break off a couple of decent size pieces. I gave it a decent go, in other words. It’s all we can do.

Part of the pull of course is that photography involves an all out effort. You have to be at the top of the ladder for the best angle, not the middle. You don’t do it from the side of the road. You leave the car behind, climb the guardrail, and go out there to get in the middle of whatever you’re looking at. You walk into the village or the farm or the life of those in question. You get off the interstate, and, as Jay Maisel says, you walk—slowly. It’s a credential to life’s events you put around your neck that gets you past the barriers that hem in and corral the others. In return, it demands that you risk things—life, limb, emotions, embarrassment, failure, sometimes all at once. It seeks only the most ardent, passionate of suitors, and even then this fickle art and craft turns veiled eyes and offers the barest wisps of approval and acceptance, and those, only occasionally.

And I accepted that slim invitation, long ago, sometimes to my regret or comeuppance. I have failed, been broke down and wept for my own ineptitude. I have given up and given in. I have railed against the apparent injustice (to me) of others, be they editors, subjects, readers, friends or family that they seemingly don’t take this as seriously as I do. I have tired of explaining myself. I’m exhausted from imploring for just a bit more of an open door, just a bit more time. I mean, don’t they see? Don’t they know this is important? If you let me just do this, together we then create something that will outlast us, and isn’t that the fucking point?

Strangely enough, lots of folks out there have found my insistence and persistence odd, or even irritating. Put smiley face here.

You asked me once what photo started it all for me. For you it was your Auschwitz photo, the reflection on the floor. You also noted other high moments. The giraffe in Tanzania, and the soldier by the sunlit doorway. Those are all far more eloquent than anything I shot in my early years. My canvas was small as a photo student. Syracuse, NY, not the savannas of Africa. I turned, as a spectator at a football game, and saw an acquaintance about to go full throttle with a yell. I took my Nikkormat, loaded with Tri-x and a 135mm f2.8 lens and put it to my eye, and swung the focus to critical and hit the shutter at the absolute crescendo of whatever verbal abuse he was hurling at the opposition. It was the first time my camera felt like an extension of my hands. My fingers had flown (for once) to the right places, and moved the infernal dials and buttons in exquisite concert. It was one frame. I sat down and stared at the camera. And I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of that day.

More tk….

Jarrett Gaza says:

on April 3, 2012 at 7:56 am

Incredible, amazing, and inspiring. I’ve been doing this over 25 years and now you have reminded me why I do it. Thanks.

Andor says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:19 am

I’m only doing photography as a hobby and not even for a very long time (overall around 7-8 years maybe), but it really covers and summarizes all the great moments of it.
Very inspiring indeed!

Pat Hart says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

I openned this expecting another entertaining blog, but what I got was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it described/explained/expressed quite so well. I’m not a “pro” – yet. Athough I have hopes that will change. And I seriously doubt I will ever be a “big time” photographer. But I cannot walk away from the camera.

My first camera was a small green plastic box camera. The kind you look down through a small hole in the top and click a black button on the side. I won it in a drawing at some store openning when I about 6. The moment it touched my hands I was hooked. Now my hands tend to shake so I’m grateful for tripods and Image Stablization. But I can’t put the camera down. When I read your blog it was the first time understanding cristalized. I’ve always known I was addicted. Thank you for giving me a bit of insight as to why.


Brandt Ryan says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

This is a beautiful narrative, and really gets at the essence of those “decisive moments”. This gentlemen can certainly write as well as he shoots–and IMHO belongs up there with Julio Cortázar’s short story (fiction) “Blow Up”. If anyone is interested in reading that to see some common threads, google “blow up Zoetrope” (I’m afraid to put in link, it might be deleted). Anyway, thanks for sharing Joe! There’s nothing like a profound piece of narrative along with a beautiful image…

Joe Masucci says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:37 am

Your words and pictures serve as an inspiration to us all. Always. Thanks Joe.

David Medina says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:37 am

Wow. How come you knew my life too? Totally identify with everything you wrote. I also remember when I found photography. How everything was less important and photography was everything. How I spent 12+ hours in a lab working on my images. Wow. Is like you knew my life too.

Louis says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:42 am

I’m fascinated and inspired by your love for photography, 35 years later. That’s as amazing as the iconic images you’ve created.

Dennis Pike says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:44 am

anyone living in Syracuse, NY has plenty to be angry and yell about.

Tyler Vance says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:48 am

Right on, Joe!


Jim Clements says:

on April 3, 2012 at 8:58 am

Great letter Joe: your professional and personal generosity shine through, as always. You remain one of the ones who always encouraged – and continues to encourage – ‘the next young pup’ who possesses a (brand-tk.) SLR, enthusiasm, humor, passion and that inexplicable “draw” to shoot pictures professionally. The ones who’ve felt that exhilaration when you press the shutter a millisecond before the peak moment.
It is amazing how passion and a camera can open up a whole new world for a lot of us from humble backgrounds – things I never dreamed I’d experience. Dan Farrell’s images in The (NY) Daily News, Nat’l Geo Mag., S.I. and Life were my first inspiration and draw. I’m fortunate so many ace-shooters like you, Dan Farrell, John Iacono, Walter Iooss, Michael O’Neill, Jay Maisel and *many* others, have all been so generous to me with your/their time, advice, humor, encouragement and interest (and who possess great humility). I am blessed to have met you guys. It is such a rush to get one frame out of 36 or 1,000 – where you yelp with excitement at what you created. It’s where and when everything converges on one axis. Pure pleasure. Thanks Joe – the blog is great.

michael anthony murphy says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:01 am

you have put into words what i’ve been feeling all along. thank you.

Bob says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:04 am


That is, exactly the point…so well written…now please talk amongst yourselves…I am all verklempt….


Nicholas Gregory says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:06 am

I thoroughly enjoyed this reflective piece. I am a teacher by profession and my passion for phototgraphy seems to be all I want to do in my free time. Many of your sentiments and words connected with me. Thanks for posting.

Ian Clements says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:26 am

The best part is it’s the old guys helping the new guys carry on something they love.

Not that you’re old.

Al says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:34 am

Joe, it is posts like this that keep me looking at your blog everyday. I have said it before….you are not only a huge inspiration to me in my photography, but also someone who can express feelings in the written word so eloquently. What a great combination….. a hugely talented photographer, but also one of the most giving people I have ever met.

Randy says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:53 am

Thank you Joe . . . just thanks a bunch!

Anthony Dayton says:

on April 3, 2012 at 9:58 am

I just finished reading George Carlin’s autobiography, “Last Words.” Leaving out the drugs he consumed and which wrecked parts of his life, his dedication and enslavement to his art is reminiscent of what you wrote. I think you would enjoy and connect with this aspect of his life story.


Anthony Dayton

Bill Wittman says:

on April 3, 2012 at 10:45 am

A wonder-full reflection. I suspect it captures the thoughts of all who pursue their life vocation with passion. (I also a parallel with the comment of Peter – ‘To whom (or to what) should we go?’ (John 6 :68)

Roby says:

on April 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

Very well put, following your creative passion transcend anything else around including time, you are here and now, totally absorbed in what you love to do!!
Thanks Joe for the great post.

Janine says:

on April 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

Beautiful Joe, a very poignant inspiration to us all. Thanks for sharing.

Ric says:

on April 3, 2012 at 11:04 am

Superb! After more than 30 years taking picture and bowing to the practical side of life where it all makes financial sense, your inspirational words have motivated me to take the plunge into what has been the passion of a lifetime: travel photography.

Of course, my CPA wife saw your article and reminded me of every financial argument against following this unpredictable photographic lifestyle. With two pensions under my belt already, I gently pointed out that life, at this time, had already given me the go-ahead. I’m going to print your words, stick them in my pocket, and then hit the road. I’m on my way…

Paul says:

on April 3, 2012 at 11:25 am

Thank you , It was just what I needed. The photography Soul suckers have been at me for a while , you reminded me to why I am a photographer .

thanks joe

Stanton says:

on April 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Please write more. This is “Letters to a Young Poet” for the 21st century.

James B says:

on April 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Wow, I sit here playing with my new D4 snapping shots of nonsensical things and marveling at what it can do. You just reminded me in an instance I experienced the same feelings with an SR-T 201 after pondering over slides and proofs. Thanks Joe!

Daniel says:

on April 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Thank you for sharing this Joe. You have been a great inspiration for me to do my very best in everything.

david says:

on April 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Joe, I am absolutely blown away by this letter. It captures where I want to be when I grow up. (I’m only 63.)Most days I almost wish it would go away. Then there are the few and infrequent days when the groove, the zone, the karma, whatever you want to call it is there and it gets you going again with the sustenance to expect another one of those days will come, and soon.

Benji2505 says:

on April 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm

If I had to add a notions or the young (?) soldier, I would tell him that it is very fulfilling not only to follow his/her passion but also to be self employed. Not being dependent on other peoples decisions that you are most likely not able to influence, is the ultimate perceived freedom. Yes, one does have to listen to the customers closely, yes, one will have one or a couple of unhappy customers, but overall one is the blacksmith of his own fate. Passion and ability to listen/learn will ultimately lead to success then.

matthew muise says:

on April 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Thank You! Truly inspiring. Great work as always, Joe!

Ben Weddle says:

on April 3, 2012 at 11:53 pm

We’ve never met, yet I’m certain we know one another. Your prose has articulated nearly every slight, every victory and every emotion I’ve felt over the past 28 years Your dogged determination has resulted in a body of work second to none and I’d be honored to share a friendship and maybe a story or two someday. You are the “tip of the spear” and I applaud your eye.

Ben Weddle

Martin Hambleton says:

on April 4, 2012 at 2:59 am

The fifth paragraph just says it all, really.

Very glad you made this public, not a private correspondence between the two of you. A lot of older guys and young pups should reflect on this. Thanks.

Nate Parker says:

on April 4, 2012 at 5:38 am

Oh that was excellent! One day this will be mandatory class reading! Thanks again Joe!

Ke Toney says:

on April 4, 2012 at 8:34 am

Joe, just the fact that you actually converse with your followers, some small town photogs, is such a great thing. That in itself is such an inspiration, I think that’s the bigger picture here. Thanks for sharing and responding to me, it has given me so much confidence. Great blog/story!

pete collins says:

on April 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

Joe, you show us once again that you are story-teller whether it is with photos or words… thank you for your unique voice.

Sandirno says:

on April 4, 2012 at 9:36 am


WOW, “It was the first time my camera felt like an extension of my hands. My fingers had flown (for once) to the right places, and moved the infernal dials and buttons in exquisite concert. It was one frame. I sat down and stared at the camera. And I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of that day.” THAT’S HOW I FELT 30 YEARS AGO. Thanks for sharing as you just nudge my memory and heart full of photo passion!


Sam says:

on April 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm


I have read your blog, your books and been to your lectures. For someone who says he can’t write, I think this is your best bit yet! Thanks. Always inspiring.

Ida Gamban says:

on April 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Beautifully said, Joe. You speak for all of us who aspire to be great photographers. Thanks!


Pete Mather says:

on April 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe.

I keeping saying I want to be just like Joe when i grow up. I am 55.

I bought a FG Nikon film camera 30 years ago. My first big picture was of my Mum in aperture priority mode and nailed it. The shot brought out the essence and spirit of her. She died a few years later. I was so excited about this picture I gave them out to family and friends. They were all moved.

I stopped taking pictures and that passion went to sleep. It awoke three years ago with a digital Nikon D3s and have taken about 30,000 images. It is in my soul. I cant stop. I have been told by my friends that i have an eye.

I would be happy to just chip a few pieces off the rock.

Great blog!

Rohit Ajitkumar says:

on April 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm


Rick Luiten says:

on April 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I want to thank you for what you are doing for this young photographer. Many years ago that was me, overseas in the Marines,the only thing that really made sence to me was working with my camera. I decided that when I returned to the U S I would be a photographer. I was married with a new kid and my family thought this was a really rediculous idea. When I came home I was very tired and beat down so I caved to the wishes of my parents and wife and found a good, safe job as a mechanic. I am not going to go into all the problems it causes living a life that is not really yours but believe me it is hard and painful. I am now closing sixty, I have bounced from on type of job to another, yes I have had a good life but there has always been something missing. I remarried twenty years ago and have a daughter who is eighteen and wants to be a photographer. This prompted me to get back into it, teaching her what I know and finding ways for her to learn from people like you on Kelby Training. I am attempting to build a business for both of us and it is tough to find work but I will say this and it is the one thing I hope your military friend hears. I am happy, truly happy for the first time in my life since returning all those years ago. Yes I have had happy times and a pretty good life but there was someting inside missing, a hole that could not be filled. I am a photographer, not a great one but I am loving what I do for the first time and I hope to pass this on to my kido. I just wish I would have known someone like you who took and interest in a young Marine, knew the passion and said, “you can do it, it will be hard but you can do it.” I also applaud the soldier for reaching out to you, it took guts. I never did something like that until, well last week when I sent a message to another Kelby teacher Bill Fortney and doggone it he wrote back, it totally surprised me. He and you are probably the who inspire me most. Thanks for everything you do and again for reaching out to a young man, you have no idea what it could mean to him and his life.

Gina says:

on April 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this. Today of all days I needed your words. After years of waiting and battling a clear and present fear of failure, I’ve recently begun building a portfolio to launch my own photography business. Never in my life have I had a passion for anything like what I have for the sound of the shutter and discovering a sweet surprise when the treasured and fleeting expressions that define us all are captured. You expressed my own love for this mad beast that is photography. And so much more eloquently than I ever could. Today was an incredibly low point for me and stumbling across your post was a divine gift. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!!!

Chip Sprague says:

on April 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I am 36 and fell in love with photography a few years ago – strike that; became obsessed. Flashbus gave me the opportunity to meet you, briefly. I’ve watched all your Kelby stuff and have all your books. I’ve read the blog for over a year.

Joe, I know you have a passion for teaching and a respect for the tradition of teaching in photography. This is the best thing you’ve ever written in my opinion.

“…like a big rock blocking the way of the stream and roiling the waters, it has stayed there, in my consciousness, day and night, mocking me…”

“I’m exhausted from imploring for just a bit more of an open door, just a bit more time. I mean, don’t they see? Don’t they know this is important? If you let me just do this, together we then create something that will outlast us, and isn’t that the fucking point?”

Ah… if only I were so articulate. It is nice to know the challenge can stay healthy for a lifetime. Sometimes I think the thing I like most about photography is that perpetual challenge.

Chris says:

on April 4, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I recently returned from Afghanistan and separated from the United States Army in search of a new career and in some weird way photography has helped with my transition back to the “real world”.

Peter Tran says:

on April 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm

And this is why I love reading Joe’s writing…it’s the human side of photography that makes it special…not the gears you carry in your bag.

Dan Berry says:

on April 4, 2012 at 8:38 pm

To all of the Veterans both the returning soldiers and to Joe.
Thank you for your service.

James Henningsen says:

on April 4, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Thank you Joe. You’ve reinvigorated my passion for photography. It’s always there, but sometimes languishes. I saw you at the Flashbus tour last year. I was so excited because I knew that Edward Eisenstadt was the photographer of “The photo of the Sailor and the Nurse” I screamed it out, and won a very fancy Memory card. That was a big thrill in my life, but not as big as meeting you. Your letter to this young man is so inspiring. It shows your passion, and hopefully will instill some in him. I know it has for me.

Ken says:

on April 5, 2012 at 7:25 am

Beautiful letter Joe, you have beautifully articulated my personal feeling about photography. I have spent over 50 years doing what I love and fortunate enough to have made a living doing it. Photography is not what we do it is what we are and I thank God for allowing me to participate in this wonderful adventure. When I was still actively working, I was certain that at some time, someone would come up behind me, tap me on the shoulder and say “You have had enough fun, now you must get a real job”! It never happened and though I am now retired from my job I am happy to say I have not and can’t imagine ever retiring from photography. Photography is how we see and who we are and I love it.

christine pincince says:

on April 5, 2012 at 10:05 am

Dear Joe,

you made me cry. so lovely to be finally understood. thank hero…one day i will save enough money to be at one of your walk abouts or seminars. Something I have longed for over a few years. I do need to be quick about it as I am already 67..but i will do it. thank you. Your talent extends past wonderous pictures to heartbreaking images made with words also.

your fan

Christine Pincince

Dave Pickens says:

on April 5, 2012 at 10:15 am

Joe,Sir, Man you touched a spot this time. Brought tears to my eyes from a feeling inside that I have never been able to put into words. Thank you.
I have seen you in two different classes and have always been impressed with your passion, it shows through in your teaching, your writing and most importantly in your photos but you have gained a special spot with this one.

John McGill says:

on April 5, 2012 at 10:48 am

Bravo! You speak for many of us.

Bogdan says:

on April 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm

…so…I’ve been doing it all wrong…for a long time…:-)

Ellen says:

on April 7, 2012 at 7:34 am

An incredible letter, thank you for writing it. Hopefully you have inspired him to truly be all that he can be. It took me years of struggling with life,job,children,home trying to find time for a few shots to hone my skill. But unfortunately, photography is like golf unless you play everyday you do not improve only stay the same. All to quick my children grew up and my life slowed down and then I heard the camera call again. Beckoning me with its shutter call, challenging me to try to tame its dials and harness the light to create something different. In my heart I knew I was late to the game, old dog new tricks and all that. But the shots I see in my head want to be expressed. So, I rallied to the challenge, picked up my camera and get frustrated at my inability. So my answer to my combat my inadequacies is to study and read and try again. And every once in awhile the photo Gods bless me with a shot that almost tells the tale in my mind. It keeps me coming back for more. By the way, I also hail from right outside Syracuse, on the shore of the Great Lake is where I call home. My husband went to Nottingham HS.

Mike Nelson Pedde says:

on April 9, 2012 at 12:29 am

Joe: Photography has been an avocation of mine for more than forty years, and at times it’s helped out in my wildlife biology work. I’ll never forget the following…

Back in 1980 I was working on a project to study the effects of spraying a new insecticide to control spruce budworm. Much of this included taking samples of insects and other critters before and after spraying to compare the populations. I’ll let you know when we get to the exciting part. My boss was a really nice guy – didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t swear… One night the two of us were out in POURING rain, with a flashlight that worked fine if it was pointed up (but shut off when it was pointed down so we could see what we were doing), collecting these tiny flies with a pair of tweezers out of plastic buckets we’d set up underneath flowering trees and putting the flies into litle vials of alcohol (to be counted and ID later). My boss turned to me at one point and said, “You know Mike, sometimes I wonder why I love this f___ing job.” I thought, “Yup. That sums it up right there.”


Rob Heller says:

on April 10, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Hi Joe. I’m not sure why, but I remember that photo of the yelling fan. It reminds me how powerful photos can be in bringing us back in time. I can remember most of the important photos I’ve shot over the last 45 years or so. Syracuse was (and is) a great breeding ground for photographers. I’ll never forget the sense of community we had at the photo lab at Newhouse. With over 30 years of teaching, I’ve tried to recreate that sense of community for my students. Keep up the great work.

Dave Dantos says:

on April 14, 2012 at 11:06 am

Wow, Joe. Just…wow. Talk about hitting the nail on the head. I have emailed several photog friends, and referred them to this blog entry. I am particularly struck by your comment that others just don’t understand the importance of what you (we) do. So very, very true. Please keep shooting, writing and creating videos, Joe. You are an inspiration to us all.

David Henkins says:

on February 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I know I’m very late to this post, but I’ve been going back and reading through your blog. I’ve been a fan of yours for awhile though. The reason I chose to respond to this thread is because I too am an Army Vet, and during the military is when my passion for photography started to take. As a young guy, trying to make it in the photography world now, hoping to someday do it for a living, this really hit home with me. So thank you for sharing it with us all.

Leave a Reply