The Path of the Generalist

The Path of the Generalist

 Post Sandy emergency medical response on Staten Island

Led this year to the hospital project…..

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….

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4 Comments

  1. Andrew Webb says:

    I think you missed one of the main, and more obvious reasons that they call you. Your style. Your stuff looks like your stuff, across all the subjects that you end up shooting. It has a certain brightly-colored flash-enhanced commercial-slow-shutter look that people want for particular projects. You may not be the best medical-services photographer in the world, but you’re best qualified to bring the Joe McNally look to the shots, and, if that is what they need, you _are_ the best photog for the job.

  2. jon says:

    beautiful images as expected, very story telling…

  3. joe partridge says:

    As a photographer for nearly 40 years I am in awe of the beautiful images Joe McNally produces – job after job – day in, day out.

  4. Joe, You nailed it here. It’s the same predicament all the best newspaper snappers I’ve known find themselves in, especially when thrust into freelancing. (“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.”)

    I have always prided myself on being able to be thrust into a vast range of assignments and situations, and come out with a decent to good image(s). I think the skill isn’t nearly as respected as it should be, for several reasons. One is that assignments have a tendency to take on a life of their own, beyond the photog’s control, unless they strictly shoot in the studio. For example, you’re a celeb or people shooter (who isn’t Annie L) and at the last moment, your subject insists that they be photographed flying a biplane, or windsurfing, or something unusual … fill in the blanks. If you’ve never shot under adverse conditions, shot action, don’t know how to light on the go, can’t hand a remote, have never shot in an aircraft etc – in other words, can’t roll with it – you’re screwed. The Generalist can and probably has done something similar in some fashion, and certainly has had to “roll with it” enough times that rather than freaking out, they “just get ‘er did.” Arguably, this takes a battery of gear which many specialists might not have, but there’s always renting or borrowing. Or as the drag racers say, “Run what you brung.”

    Maybe all it takes it to give up control, be able to shoot at ISO6400 in low light, and be able to capture real moments, instead on controlling and directing everything. This is an art unto itself, which many specialists don’t have.

    I have HUGE respect for the photogs I know who can be parachuted behind enemy lines, into the unknown or the new known, and make a picture through a combination or experience, skill, fluency in technique (being able to reproduce a decent version of what someone else has done … i.e, the importance of studying other people’s work and analyzing how it was done, especially lighting), and boldness. They are few in this age of specialization. Without being arrogant, I think photogs who can should just advertise themselves as “I can shoot anything.” I love a challenge, and so my next one is to teach myself outdoor light painting (like Dave Black’s, I hope) so that someday I can use it in my bag of tricks.

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