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

The Path of the Generalist

Jul 8

In Jobs at 7:39am

Led this year to the hospital project…..

 Post Sandy emergency medical response on Staten Island

For a photog, the path of the generalist can be a fraught one. You are never the first shooter called, for instance, because you are never the regarded as the “best” at anything. You’re never the best action guy, or still life expert. You don’t do celebrity enough to have Tom Cruise or Beyonce on speed dial. You barely know any Hollywood publicists, and many of the ones you might have met you couldn’t stand. You might shoot the occasional wedding, but given the fierceness of that market, you’ll never be real player. You don’t know a musk ox from a Jersey cow, so that rules out wildlife. And you just flat out suck at landscape.

I’ve basically just described myself, really. My entire career has consisted of a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. The generalist. My answer over the phone when someone asks me if I can shoot something is “Yes, of course.” The shakes start when I put the phone down. I liken my wonderful predicament as being like that of being a pretty good utility player on a baseball team. I don’t handle any one position the best, but by golly I can play a bunch of different spots pretty well, and hit the cutoff man when the game is on the line. Most of the time.

Robotic Surgery

This had led to many photographic adventures, to be sure. The most recent, and certainly one of the most memorable of my career, arrived on our doorstep earlier this year. I was commissioned to create a book, a visual poem, if you will, to the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System. What an amazing job. It touched on many, if not most, of the skills in the photog’s bag–human relations, sensitivity to situations, hitting deadlines, run and gun shooting, remote camera photography, lighting, and all manner of off the cuff, impromptu camera work. It also confirmed what I have always preached–the camera is a visa. In this instance, one to visit the astonishing world of modern medicine.

Jeff Barasch, the president of Onward Publishing, rang up with the notion of doing this job in the fall of last year. We share a history together at the Time Inc. publications, and, via Jeff, I was introduced to the amazing staff of NSLIJ, who organized the 25 day shoot. We shot at pre-dawn, all through the night, in the snow, in high tech operating rooms, in delivery rooms, in the ER. It was one of those “all in” jobs, the ones that stick with you, not just while you are shooting, but while you are at breakfast, in the shower, driving home. After every day in the field, you always feel you could have done better, so you get home, charge batteries, download cards, and roll again before the sunlight, determined to engage at a higher level. And, at this turn of the page, it was handy enough to be a generalist, because almost everyday, the job demanded a different skill set, or another approach.

Ambulance moving through Manhattan

Having a photog pop into, say, a delivery room, is, while not a medical miracle, certainly a logistical one. Permissions, understandably, are required. Delicacy at the camera is needed, perhaps even more than a working knowledge of the relationships between f-stops and shutter speeds. I’ve done many medical coverages for the Geographic, so I know my way around an operating theater, but in these intense rooms, your first and always quietly asked question is, “May I stand here?”

Doctor and nurse work in concert during open heart surgery.

The staff of medical professionals I met on this job were nothing but extraordinary, daily marshaling the combination of humanity, compassion, expertise and technology needed to meet the nearly overwhelming medical needs of a metropolitan area such as New York and its surrounding communities. It was one of those jobs where, photographically, you rarely came away empty handed. There was always something, a medical marvel, a simple human interaction, a victory story, something, to turn your camera towards. I wanted it to keep going, truth be told.

A young girl regains hearing in both ears via cochlear implants.

 Teamwork in the Bioskills lab.

Checking chart in operating theater hallway.

The healing touch of animals.

Morning coffee for the residents.

Medical miracles.

24 hours post op, first steps.

And, heading home, with a new life.

A very worthwhile job, a lucky one to fall to the generalist, the camera jack of all trades. Thanks to Jeff, Justin Colby and the gang at Onward for thinking of our studio, and of course to the folks at the hospital, especially Cecelia Fullam, whose foresight led to the creation of the book. And to Barbara Mlawer, Robert Castano, Ken McMillan–thank you for putting up with some of my nuttier ideas.

There were some intriguing, ad hoc camera and lighting solutions involved in this job, and I will diagram a few in blogs to come…..more tk….

Terry Moore says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:09 am

Great blog post! I think being a generalist is a great way of labeling yourself and others like me. I would wouldn’t have it any other way :) Keep up the great awe inspiring work mate!

Millie says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:14 am

Your photos are outstanding (especially the ambulance shot)…what a wonderful project!

Marc Austin-Zande says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:17 am

Fabulous stuff Joe. Yet again, your humble and humorous presentation is just so damned inspiring… and for me more inspiring than any other photographer, past or present. I think ‘story teller’ might be a better moniker for you. And by that I mean both in your words and your photos. This commission is the same.

Thank you! (from another ‘generalist’ who hopes one day to be half as good as you)

joe says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:19 am

Wow. As a person with strong connection to both photography and healthcare – WoW.
Look fwd to reading tech aspect of the shoot.

Lean says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

Joe, you are an inspiration to the youth! Hope they build a gold statue of you in New York. -from the Philippines

W Kilburg says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:27 am

Wow. Incredible. Lighting diagrams are always revered but I’d like to hear more about this. Where can one get this visual book?

Mark Jones says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

Wow Joe – beautiful work with great honesty. Glad the shakes never wear off! I shot an ambulance service recently and you just feel totally humbled by these people whose jobs you couldn’t do. Huge hearts. See you in London in Sept.

Rebekah says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

I love this post (as I do all of them). I need a reminder that I don’t need to “find my niche” or “brand myself” or “shoot what I love” – all phrases I’ve heard/read ad nauseum. I can shoot anything I like, I can grow in all areas, I can enjoy picking up my camera (without going ‘pro’). You and Ralph Morse will keep me inspired.

Bob says:

on July 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

Ode to the Generalist…love it, Joe – many thanks

Omar says:

on July 8, 2013 at 9:03 am

Joe I think that being a photographer with a specific focus has made you an inspiration to many of us. As usual your work is the best. Cheers from the Netherlands!

Gary says:

on July 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

Inspiring, as usual, Mr McNally!

Mike says:

on July 8, 2013 at 10:03 am

Great post. Just a week ago I saw a blog post telling photographers they need to specialize if they want to be successful. That may help make money, but they won’t enter new and exciting worlds the way you have.

Rick says:

on July 8, 2013 at 10:13 am

The morning coffee shot is my fav. Very nice work and description of a generalist!

Artistic Puppy says:

on July 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

I think you have success as a generalist because you are a talented photographer. When I hear people describe you its usually as the best OCF photog out there, or as the one who has the ability to manipulate light manually. Your skills in these areas have bought you a ticket on the generalist train. Great post once again Joe!

Bernard Gastrich says:

on July 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Joe, your words and photos are a truly integrated whole message. The ambulance shot alone is the proverbial 10,000 words. You are an inspiration!

PS I was and Cahill’s hi Dr. through her childhood and teenage years.

Pascal Sauvé says:

on July 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Awesome work Joe !

Finally ! The ultimate positive affirmation of a generalist !

I knew I was a generalist a long time ago when :

-Back in high school, I never hung around any specific crowd – i’d hang around with all of them.
-Back in University, I refused to specialize in any areas of History. I tried to get all the history courses in my brain.
-I still listen and play many varieties of music – not just one type.
-I support as many IT systems as I can – not just one.
-When I decided that I was going to be a photographer (amateur), I decided to be omnivorous and eat/drink any photographic subjects that I can get my hands on (ok maybe not weddings…) because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.

Duke Ellington’s greatest compliment to another person was that they were beyond category.

Joe, you’re beyond category and where I come from, that’s good.

Mike Glenn says:

on July 8, 2013 at 9:30 pm

shared the link with my group.

The FB FDNYEMS Photo group

Mike Glenn says:

on July 8, 2013 at 9:49 pm

The patient being loaded into the ambulance,….Thats my buddy of almost 20 years on the other side of the stretcher. Cant wait to bust his chops. Excellent piece

Bart Hamilton says:

on July 8, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Beautiful and inspiring work Joe! After nearly 30 years in law enforcement I can appreciate what you were up against for this assignment, yet you pulled it off flawlessly. As someone that wanted to do what you do, all my life, did you run into any people that knew your work and were in awe to have you along as I would have been?

Eric Krebs says:

on July 9, 2013 at 12:45 am

Very cool job! 25 days, what an experience. Would be quite a thing to browse all 25 days of images start to finish. Quite a unique culling exercise I imagine. Great work! I know the folks at Onward Publishing and they are very good people. Jeff has to be one of funniest people on this planet.

Tom McKean says:

on July 9, 2013 at 5:36 am

Wow! Great shoot. Even though you’re a generalist, you do the best you can with each assignment. I did the same experiences when I had worked for 3 local newspapers.

Patrik Lindgren says:

on July 9, 2013 at 10:38 am

Great work! As someone else already said, your way with words are equal to your photographic endeavours.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on July 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm

We’re in different lines of work, Joe, but I consider myself a generalist as well. There’ve been times when I’ve wondered if I should be more specialized too; but I’ve always ridden my wave. At the end of the day, I “git it done.” Whatever “it” is that day. Like you do when your phone rings and you pick it up and get the next job.

This is a really special post and we all appreciate your writing it. I think are all inundated with specialist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Me, I prefer the guy that, as Bruce Springsteen says, is the Jack Of All Trades –

I’ll hammer the nails
And I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up
Until she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

And for many years, Joe, you’ve been alright. ~ Mark

TCP says:

on July 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Love the Ambulance shot very colorful

Ben says:

on July 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm

This was the thing I needed to read today. Long time lurker here, struggling with which direction my nascent career is heading, and why not be a “generalist”? I hope I can do it 1/100th as well as you, Mr. McNally. Cheers.

Tracy says:

on July 9, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Thank you Joe, for your beautiful work and for always sharing your unique perspective. I keep hearing from other photographers that one needs to specialize in order to be successful. My response is that I specialize photographing people in a variety of events and situations.

Dennis Pike says:

on July 10, 2013 at 6:44 am

You sir, may be a generalist, but you are the best of the generalists.

Michael Anthony Murphy says:

on July 10, 2013 at 8:11 am

That opening had me a bit nervous. I have feared be a somewhat of a generalist. So many preach : niche, niche, niche. I try but I can’t help but want to shoot shoot shoot. Ok, so there are a couple things I won’t shoot, namely, porn but I have done, and proudly so, artistic nudes. Landscapes? Ha. I did one recently and I kind of pleasantly shocked myself although I typically avoid them like the plague.
Thank you Joe for shining the light! I will fear generalization no more.
Only, love thy camera!!


Mark says:

on July 10, 2013 at 8:43 am

Thanks Joe. Generalist I like the title.

Curtis Brandt says:

on July 10, 2013 at 11:36 am

Beautiful work, as always, Mr. McNally. Absolutely involving images, shot with the usual sense of compassion and “beyond decency”. You know, of course, there IS something you’re the best at… :-)

Hannes Uys says:

on July 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm

This just shows how versatility made you such a skilled photographer Joe. The ambulance shot is sublime!

Terry Tipton says:

on July 10, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Thanks Joe, your blog is alway insaprational.

Scott Thomas Photography says:

on July 12, 2013 at 10:15 am

I can never be a specialist either. Being a JOAT (Jack of All Trades) is an amiable profession, Joe, and you are admired for it.

Bill Fortney says:

on July 15, 2013 at 4:20 am

You’re still the one!

Esther Beaton says:

on July 15, 2013 at 10:41 pm

What an outstanding array of photographic styles, lighting, moods, coverage. I would yearn to shoot a photojournalism piece as good as this. Most difficult circumstances (fluoro, no one has time, privacy issues, etc) but what heart and soul has been breathed into the essay through the photography alone. Words are superfluous.

Mark Vinett says:

on July 16, 2013 at 8:17 am

Hi Joe,

Love your work. Where can I get a copy of this book.

Your compassion in your words and photos brings out such emotion.

When ever I get a chance to read and view your work I am touched by your ability.
I always seem to learn from you that reaching your subject is more than f stops and shutter speeds….It is in the heart that photography is made.
You have to feel it to create it…
God bless
Thank you
Mark Vinett

Rich Kane says:

on July 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Hey Joe, Nice Times Square light on the EMS vehicle! That looks familiar….. stay safe!

Mark Carruthers says:

on July 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Hi Joe,

Having done a ton of great work in your career, I’m marveled at how humble you are in your writing. Your true gift may not be your photography prowess, but rather your ability to continually learn, seek new ideas, utilize technology and stay grounded. Truly remarkable…

Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Mark Carruthers

Joe McNally says:

on July 21, 2013 at 7:06 am

You bet, Rich…..hope all is well. I keep meaning to drop by the house someday soon….hang in…Joe

Simon says:

on July 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Great post, as always, and certainly an assignment full of magic moments I’m sure.

I’m another one struggling with the advice of many telling me to pick a specialisation and run with it but I keep coming back to the generalist role time and time again. I’m not great at anything but am good enough (usually) to pull off jobs requiring a range of skills and tolerances. And if I’m being honest I think I produce my best work when thrown the sort of variables and challenges involved in ‘generalist’ type jobs. It certainly gives me hope and conviction to keep following my path when reading of your exploits Joe.


Leave a Reply