So what’s a typical day like assisting Joe McNally? First things first. When you’re a photographer’s assistant, especially for someone like Joe, “typical” goes right out the door.
To start, here’s a bit of the back story:
While I was in school for my undergrad, I was lucky enough to get a summer internship with Joe. In retrospect, I can confidently say that I learned more in those three months than in my entire college education. Now, people ask me all the time how I pulled off an internship with such a person, and my answer really comes down to persistence. I had seen a presentation of Joe’s at the Maine Photographic Workshops, really loved his work and became a fan.
Communication Arts Magazine puts out a great photo annual each year, and lists the contact info for everyone who makes it in… So that next summer, when browsing through, I saw a photo of Joe’s, called the studio, interviewed, and got the gig- that’s about it. Internships are absolutely competitive, but if you jump on them early, follow up, and make sure they know you’re very interested, you just might get it. On top of that, for any young shooters out there looking to intern: it’s not all about who you intern for, but what you get out of it. That same summer, I also interviewed with the studios of Mary Ellen Mark and David LaChapelle (both of whom would have happily taken on my free labor), but I didn’t think either of them would have given me nearly the hands-on experience I thought I’d get with Joe, and I was proven right.
After I finished school in Pennsylvania, I had a short stint with an ad agency and was drumming in a band, but knew I needed to be shooting full-time. Freelancing wasn’t the easiest of things to do, and 75% of my income came from shooting weddings and bartending part-time. All I cared about was being able to make the majority of my living with a camera- which I was doing, but I was also getting restless where I was. I always tried to stay in touch with Lynn, Joe’s studio manager, and would call to check in and let her know, as always, that I wanted to work for them, but my timing always seemed to be off. As I started to look at grad schools for my MFA, I got a call from Lynn to say that Brad Moore was moving on to assist Scott Kelby! Timing worked out for once, Joe offered me the position, and I very happily jumped at the opportunity.
So what exactly do I do?
Like most assistants, just about everything. As a first assistant, I spend a lot of time on the road (since last October, I’ve logged almost 50K miles on Delta alone, flying everywhere from Arizona to Dubai). I don’t travel everywhere with Joe, but it seems as though I spend probably 40% of my time on the road, which I still find to be pretty crazy (in the best of ways). To that end, I’ve had several mornings where I’ve woken up and had no idea where I was for a few moments… Even crazier (laugh if you want) was a few weeks ago in LA, I was walking around and lost all concept of what season it was… I suppose that’s all just part of being on the road a lot?!
There’s a perception out there that Joe shoots all small flash (which he sometimes does), and someone even recently wrote that he’s “known for traveling with a minimal kit.” I sort of laughed out loud reading that, as, well…we’ll just say it’s not always true. While on the road I’m in charge of all the gear, which can range anywhere from 5-15 cases (I told you). On-location, things are always unpredictable, but I’m generally setting up and changing lighting, handing off cameras to Joe, switching out cards, shooting video, etc. Once we get back to the hotel, I have to charge all cameras/batteries/flashes/strobes, download/backup cards, clean sensors, etc. It’s not at all for the faint of heart, but it’s also one of those jobs I don’t think anyone even remotely interested in this field could ever get bored of.
One very valid point to mention: Keeping up with Joe is TIRING. Hands down, it’s a constant challenge, and even as a 26-year old kid, I have to work very hard to keep up with his constant energy, enthusiasm and creativity. I think it really boils down to the fact that anyone who’s been going at this as long and as hard as Joe has to be one of the most passionate and driven individuals you will ever meet. Jay Maisel’s assistant Jamie mentioned something similar, and most other assistants would agree with this sentiment. These guys didn’t get to where they are by sitting on their hands. This isn’t an office job where you make your way to the top. It’s something entirely different, and most people will never quite understand it. I’m lucky enough to see it every day. These guys have felt this passion for longer than I’ve been alive, and I hope more than anything, that some of this will rub off on me.
Back to the studio. When I’m home, part of my job is to reorganize gear. Being that Joe’s a “generalist”, no shoot or equipment he takes with him is ever really the same. What does that mean? Kind of a nightmare for myself and our two other assistants, Will and Lynda :) Equipment constantly needs to be cleaned, re-packed, sent out for repairs- and this isn’t a closet full of gear- this is a large two-car garage grip house that could compete with the best of them. In fact, when we do the McNally Workshops in the NYC area, we need Joe’s Suburban, a 20-foot U-Haul and another SUV just to transport the gear. As good of an organizational system as we may have, it’s always a tremendous challenge to keep up with it all.
Aside from the gear end of things, my days in the studio consist of post-production, archiving, printing, researching, coordinating with Lynn on projects, phone calls, etc. I also spend a ton of time with Lynn going over contracts, estimates, billing, and all those things that most young photographers are completely blind to, coming out of school. It’s so undervalued, but really is just as important as taking the picture. Without the business knowledge under your belt, there’s no way to survive, so it’s great to be able to learn from such an experienced producer.
Although this all is very hard work and can be quite exhausting, it has some pretty incredible benefits. Most importantly, I get to work beside one of the best in the world on an almost daily basis. I actually get paid to go to workshops that most people pay really good money to attend. I’ve gotten to meet and become good friends with a ton of extremely talented people in the industry, whom I’d never otherwise get to know. And I get to travel the world and have experiences I’d never get to have without this job.
I truly feel like one of the most fortunate people in the world to be where I am right now- It’s actually quite surreal to think about it. After all, very few people enjoy their job, let alone love it. If asked where I’ll end up from here, I really don’t have an answer- But I do know that I’m on an amazing path, and as long as I feel as though I’m challenging myself and learning a lot, I’m completely content.
Thanks to Scott and Brad for putting this together and inviting me to say a few words. I feel honored to be a part of this community, and I encourage you all to get involved as well. I hope to meet some of you out on the road, and if you ever have any questions, just hit up Joe’s blog.