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A Cover Story

Apr 17

In history, Rambling at 6:15am

A couple months ago I had the cover of Newsweek. It was a stock shot of the Navy Seals, running the beach at Coronado, their West Coast training base. I’ve worked with the Seals a bunch, and many of those frames are in the stock library at Getty Images, who made the contact and the sale. It was cool to see the image used in this way, and it gave me a quick snapshot of the biz as it stands. Getty billed Newsweek about $1700 for the usage, which then was split with me. (I have no input or influence over what Getty chooses to charge for the use of an image.) I was, honestly, happy to hear that figure, given the dire and prevalent news of covers being sold for $50 bucks and the like.

While rates haven’t advanced, in this instance, neither have they retreated drastically. I’ve shot a bunch of assigned covers for Newsweek over the years, and it was always heady to corral that coveted piece of real estate. When I was shooting a lot for Newsweek, editorial rates were hovering around $350 per day, and if you could pull in a cover for a couple grand or more, shazam, you just copped the price of a couple more weeks of day rates. (The formula we all worked for at that time was day rate against space. In other words, if you worked 10 days and they ran nothing, you got those ten day rates, plus the expenses. If you worked one day, and the force was with you and you produced a cover and three double trucks, you got all that space payment, even though you worked only a few hours.) Those days were the stuff of the fevered imaginations of every mag shooter out there.

TIME of course paid more. They always had more budget than Newsweek. As my friend Jimmy Colton, then an editor at NW and now at SI, was fond of saying, “TIME is a hospital. Newsweek’s a MASH unit.” Below is the first cover I shot for TIME, and if I recall, they paid about 3 grand. Other shooters, the real premier cover guys, got more dough, for sure. I was definitely not in that group. If I got a cover, it was either an accident or a last ditch phone call by a desperate editor.

But TIME was the big boy on the block. As a shooter or an agent you could always expect more days, or bigger stock checks from TIME. The two mags were neighbors actually, with Newsweek being on the east side of St. Pat’s, facing Madison Ave., and TIME of course sitting astride 6th Ave. on the west end of Rock Center, just a couple blocks away off 50th St. Picture agents, attempting to sell their plastic sheeted, pre-digital wares, would often be at both mags on a Friday as they closed, trying to push their agency’s stories. They used to call this newsweekly Friday night tour the “50th St. shuffle.” There were certain agents who operated in totally blase fashion, selling packages of pictures labeled “Exclusif! Mondial!” (Worldwide exclusive!) simultaneously to as many editors as possible.

Selling pictures had a certain charm to it back then. You could liken it to loading up a buckboard with a bunch of pictorial clutter, harnessing Old Blue and clip clopping through the neighborhood, intoning “Rags, clothes, pictures, bottles, shiny objects….” Digital delivery is vastly preferable in terms of economy and speed, though the personal touch is a bit lacking. As a shooter, I could lumber up to Newsweek on closing night, hover at the light table, beer in hand (supplied by the picture editor, Jim Kenney) and look and listen in amazement as experienced chrome editors flew through stacks of slides, clapping a Schneider loupe to each successive transparency with the insistence and speed of a well handled set of castanets.

I shot a lot more for Newsweek, the poorer cousin of the newsweeklies, and got used to doing more with less. When I got sent to Poland for the first visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land, we had 7-8 shooters, and predictably, TIME had about 12. But, we had an ace up the sleeve, in that Kenney had wisely gathered in the services of  Sygma, the Parisian based agency, to shoot for him. They were a wonderfully eccentric, experienced group of international news photogs, led by the incomparable JP Laffont. Shrewdly, they showed up in Warsaw in a Winnebago, driven in from France. In the initial days of the papal visit, while we were all in Warsaw, that meant that JP and company would routinely show up at your hotel door, and in gentlemanly fashion inquire, “May I please have a shower?” All of us fancy pants shooters with hotel rooms would make good-natured sport of our mobile home compatriots, down there in the parking lot with none of the amenities of the Warsaw Intercontinental.

Ah, but they were smarter than we were! When Il Papa got out there in the hinterlands of then severely Communist Poland, the press corps was relegated to cold water dorm flats and rickety, swayback cots set into ancient bed frames. Memories of the comparative luxury of the Intercontinental faded fast. The restaurants would routinely have a giant “X” through the entree list. They would often have only a bit of ham and some bread. And no booze! Everywhere the Pope went was dry. It was trying, I tell ya.

One night, having spent the day being harassed by the Polish militia, and fighting through thousands of people stacked against each other to hear the Pontiff say mass,  I was stumbling back to my prison cell of a room. I believe I had just dined on water and stale bread, and was tragically without the anesthesia of several beers. My desperate nose went up in the air. The smell of truly wonderful French cooking was wafting about! Fragrant and beautiful, the scent led me right to–you guessed it–the Sygma Winnebago. I stood at the door of this four star restaurant on wheels, and I must have looked for all the world like a refugee child at the screen. So much so that JP had mercy, opened the door and handed me a glass (not plastic) of wine. “Drink, McNally. Enjoy. It’s good French Bordeaux!”

At that moment, and it wasn’t just because we were on a papal trip, it was like receiving communion.

Lessons learned along the way….more tk….

Rory O'Toole says:

on April 17, 2012 at 6:34 am

Great story Joe. Thanks for providing payment figures – not something you often see. Makes the romance of photojournalism a bit less romantic. Real.


Phil Bowen says:

on April 17, 2012 at 6:37 am

Hey Joe-

I remember seeing this cover on the newsstand. What do you think about the focus being on the soldiers in the background. clearly this is a great moment of peak action, but the softness of the guy in front compared to the sharpness of the guys behind him was a little distracting?

Pascal Sauvé says:

on April 17, 2012 at 6:48 am

Brilliant bit of reality with some real insights into the life of a photographer right down to the dollar signs.

Keep at it Joe :)

Joe McNally says:

on April 17, 2012 at 6:49 am

yep, it’s a touch back focused. This was a 400mm manual focus lens, on transparency. The frames on either side of it were a bit crisper on the lead, but we’ve always gone with this as due to the peak gesture of the lead guy….joe

Andor says:

on April 17, 2012 at 7:01 am

What a great story again! – Looks like JP really thought in advance! :-)))

Alexis says:

on April 17, 2012 at 7:04 am

this is great story & read. Thank you so much for sharing!

Kelvin Espada says:

on April 17, 2012 at 7:23 am

Maybe I’m reading too much into this but I see a classic example of why we shouldn’t deal with these stock companies. They should pay the proper fees, specially when dealing with a seasoned pro as yourself.

Michelle Gonzalez says:

on April 17, 2012 at 7:52 am

Loved hearing about “back in the day”. But don’t we always? :) Ahhh memories…

Lorri E says:

on April 17, 2012 at 8:27 am

Joe, you always provide such wonderful stories. You not only provide wonderful photos but you paint wonderful word pictures as well. I can just see dreary conditions in the hinterlands and you standing outside the Winnebago.

JohanSopiee says:

on April 17, 2012 at 8:31 am

You’re amazing Joe. Thanks for sharing. I may not comment often but you never fail to inspire me. I hope I’ll be half as awesome as you when I get to your age. It’d be out of this world for me to even touch a tenth of the number of lives and us togs that you continually inspire. You have my utmost respect and admiration. When I grow up, I wanna be just like Joe McNally, the Super Duper Tenacious Tog.

Mitch Wojnarowicz says:

on April 17, 2012 at 9:03 am

I shot some of those heady, late 1980’s magazine jobs. Shoot, cram a roll or 5 of E6 in a Fedex envelope and you got your day rate. Then, sometimes, another check would show up for the space rate after the mag was published. Weeks later the film came back after the embargo and you shipped it off for syndication.

That $3,000 cover assignment would have to pay $5,400 today just to keep pace with inflation (saying nothing about how it is vastly more expensive to run a photo business today). I’d be doing great if I were getting calls for 5K cover shoots instead of emails asking me to shoot for free with work for hire contracts attached.

I do miss the days of the pirate-ship where a mess of us crammed ourselves into whatever darkroom would have the merry lot of us in whatever city where the next-big-thing was happening. So much was learned by having to publicly slap your film on the light table as the eyes of 18 colleagues, some world class, hovered over your skills and eye, laid bare for all to see.

It was the best of times.

Boaz says:

on April 17, 2012 at 9:26 am

Joe, that was a brilliant read. Very inspiring.

Dennis Pike says:

on April 17, 2012 at 11:21 am

I will never tire of these stories.

Pete Tsai says:

on April 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Very cool cover and story Joe!
I thought it was a very cool coincidence that my first 1/2 page in Time magazine was on the same week you had your cover on Newsweek. I really with I had your cover on my issue, they (Time) ran a giant big Portrait of Kim Il Un….

stanchung says:

on April 17, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Oh wow- what an era- you’re an inspiration and a looking glass into what is was back then and now. Love the stories behind the pictures. Thanks Joe.

David Frandsen says:

on April 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Wow. $1700 bucks for a cover. Seems really low.

Sandy Gennrich says:

on April 17, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Thanks for sharing the rates. I would not have thought that $1700 for a national cover was the going rate. Your story, though, brings back very fond memories of my time studying in Communist Poland. As Westerners, we had the privilege of eating out. As you said, the big X was through most of the items. We fondly called one restaurant the “Bigos and Pivo Place” because despite having a TGIFriday’s lenght menu, the only thing the ever had available was Bigos – a cabbage dish and Pivo – beer. At least there was beer!

Antoine Reveau says:

on April 18, 2012 at 5:57 am

Once more, thanks for sharing Joe.

Lou says:

on April 18, 2012 at 11:31 am

Awesome story, as usual, and thanks for the laughs, as usual.


Harry Martin says:

on April 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Joe… This is such great storytelling. I love your stories from the trenches when you covered news. When’s the book going to be published?

Mark says:

on April 19, 2012 at 2:52 am

I’m from Poland and that story about Pope – was wonderfull and you have been in Poland.

In Poland meeting the Pope is the highest honor and not only did you meet the Pope but also He know your name and give you a wine. WOW.

Now – in 2012 is much better here :)
Come some day and visit us.
If you have more photos (or stories) of Papa please share some on your blog.

Patrik Lindgren says:

on April 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Your stories, well they´re as always excellent and always with that little touch of your humor.
Entertaining to say the least, keep bringing them.

Peter says:

on April 20, 2012 at 5:29 am

Hi Joe,

great story, especially your memoirs from Poland – were I come from. As Mark said, it’s much better right now, you probably wouldn’t recognize it :)

For you don’t come here untill you get an assigment, I will have to come to US for one of your workshops …

Joe Masucci says:

on April 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm

My guess is the slight back focus was an artistic choice made on the spur of the moment. Joe wanted the foremost guy to represent “every” Seal so the slight blur served that purpose. Brilliant read and pictures as usual.

chat says:

on April 20, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I’m from Poland and that story about Pope – was wonderfull and you have been in Poland.

sohbet says:

on April 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm

In Poland meeting the Pope is the highest honor and not only did you meet the Pope but also He know your name and give you a wine. WOW.

avrupa sohbet says:

on April 20, 2012 at 8:24 pm

great story, especially your memoirs from Poland – were I come from. As Mark said, it’s much better right now, you probably wouldn’t recognize it

For you don’t come here untill you get an assigment, I will have to come to US for one of your workshops …

Christoph says:

on April 21, 2012 at 1:38 am

As always beautifully/cheekily written with that McNally sense of humour. Looking frwd to meet you in Melbs! “Just like receiving communion” Gold!

Corky says:

on April 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Great story. My imagination followed every step of the way.

Norbert D. says:

on April 23, 2012 at 12:42 am

HI Joe!
I’m from Poland too and I always cherish when others, especially someone like you, write about it.

One thought though – you said everywhere Pope went – it went dry everywhere… (what a pun, eh?…) :-)

I must admit that it wasn’t (couldn’t) be true at all times. It was hard, no doubt, but for a different reason. It was not because the Pope was coming – it was because of the Communist regime. You could buy well-nigh nothing constantly. You had to stand in line a night before they opened a shop where (you knew) there was coffee on offer that day.

Interesting times…

I would like to extend my invitation to you, too. It is way different now, come and see for yourself! :-)

Thanks a lot for memories…,
Norbet DÄ…bkowski

Jerome Yeats says:

on April 23, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Dear Joe, Interesting cover. I too had work published by Time & Newsweek by Sygma. You know what happened to Sygma in the end. And who it was taken over by. I had the devil’s own job of getting my slides back years later. I had to threaten the new “owners” with court action.

Among the slides was a shot of Al Pacno in a play in London. I submitted it to a very large monster agency in the UK and it was rejected because of “Noise”. Yes, believe me, a shot of Al Pacino from the days of film was rejected because of “Noise”. I am 65 now and sometimes I think I have lived too long because the photo libraries now know nothing and do not want to learn.

Yours was a good story. Cheers. JY

Nikon Gear talk says:

on April 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Great stuff keep them coming, you are being followed

TorontoCP says:

on April 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm

The time magazine cover is a great one it

Rex Larsen says:

on May 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm

The fifty-fifty split with Getty is not common is it ? Don’t they usually take a bigger cut ?

mary woodrow says:

on May 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Hi Joe, My daughter Lynn Miller has been trying to locate you to let you know that Jody Miller will be graduating from Eastern College this Saturday, May 12th. AND to invite you to Jody’s wedding on July 27 at 4:30 in Bowie Methodist Church. Jody is all grown up now and we still remember you when she spent time at Johns Hopkins Hospital and you filmed the surgery. I do hope you receive this message. Your story with National Geographic was one of the best and started Lynn, Al, and Jody as the Messengers of the Rasmussen Support Network across the world. I do hope that you can let Lynn / Jody know that you are still in business and they would love to see you again. Thanks. YT, Mary Woodrow

Loren says:

on May 6, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Great read! Thanks for sharing.

Jeff Burkholder says:

on May 31, 2012 at 2:35 am

Oh, Joe… I remember those days. When sleeping on a cot was wonderful, because some other schmuck got the couch that had ‘who knows on it’. And the shipping of film out was like science… with what film went where and to whom. Mitch Wojnarowicz, you said it… the E6 days… marking canisters and sending paper caption notes. Man, I remember the first-time sending captions and story info on MCI Mail (early Internet) and how the editors where blown away by some of us having that technology. Boy, times have changed!

Monica says:

on June 2, 2012 at 4:59 am

You just gave me an insightful view of how magazines work! You deserve every penny that you charge Lovely work you do!

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