Joe McNally: Photographer

McNally in his studio with one of the firefighters who appeared in The Faces of Ground Zero exhibition.

By Tom Deignan, Columnist
April / May 2002

On September 12, photographer Joe McNally’ s wife had to get into Manhattan, to tend to her duties as director of photography at Fortune magazine. She was forced to stay in Manhattan for several days, as the world absorbed the shock of the terrorist attacks on New York City.

Joe McNally, meanwhile, was home in Westchester.

“It was sort of frustrating being a journalist and seeing this huge story occur and not being there,” admits McNally, an award-winning shutterbug recently dubbed “perhaps the most versatile photojournalist working today” by American Photo magazine.

The time alone, however, gave McNally valuable time with his two teenaged daughters.

“It also gave me a chance to think and formulate an idea of what to do about this,” he said.

Two weeks later, McNally would begin a hectic, one-of-a-kind project which is likely to stand as one of the most poignant and compelling records of this harrowing time.

An exhibition of 85 nine-by-four-foot photographs, McNally’s “The Faces of Ground Zero” opened in New York in January 2002 to rave reviews, and will be touring the U.S. and the world for the rest of the year. Some of McNally’s photos are included in the best-seller One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001, a Life Magazine book.

“We kept hearing all about these people and their heroics, and that they were larger than life,” McNally recalls of the days following September 11. Quickly, the New Jersey-born photographer’s thoughts turned to a Polaroid camera, housed at Moby C studio in Lower Manhattan.

The camera measures 12 by 16 by 12 feet — roughly the size of a one-car garage. Polaroid founder Edwin Land ordered developers to build the monumental camera — which produces 40-by-80-inch photos of stunning clarity — in the 1970s.

But first things first. Just weeks after so many Americans’ lives — cops, firefighters, housewives, stockbrokers — were turned upside down, McNally had to coax them into the studio.

“It was hard, but I was committed to the idea. I just threw everything I had into it. I worked the phones as hard as I worked the cameras.”

Word of McNally’ s project quickly spread.

“Then the firefighter grapevine took over,” he says. “It was handy to be Irish, working with the police and firefighters.”

But McNally was intent on capturing the diversity of those affected by the terrorist attacks. So his subjects ranged from rescue workers and their loved ones, to Rudy Giuliani and Lisa Beamer, whose husband Todd helped subdue the hijackers of United Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

“We worked 24 hours a day for three weeks,” said McNally, whose work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Life, where he was named the first staff photographer in two decades, a position he held until 1998.

While working on “The Faces of Ground Zero,” McNally recalls, “The studio had a real range of emotions…. People were feeling loss, they were questioning why they survived.”

McNally, 49, recalled one firefighter who wore a shirt which bore a fitting message: “Gone But Not Forgotten,” emblazoned with shamrocks.

McNally’s family moved frequently in his youth, but both his parents (his mother was an O’Daire) were “New York-centric” and returned to the area in the 1960s. After enrolling in Syracuse University’s journalism program, McNally planned on being a reporter. But he was “forced” to take a photo class, and was hooked.

As “The Faces of Ground Zero” was about to open in the Vanderbilt Room of New York’s Grand Central Station, McNally vividly recalls a private show for the subjects.

“That was a very emotional night, and a very wonderful night,” he says. Of course, the tears flowed. But McNally adds that by January, “Many of them had regained their capacity to laugh.”

The emotions are likely to be mixed again, the next time New Yorkers get to see McNally’s epic exhibit. He says efforts are afoot to bring it back to the city by September 11, 2002. ♦

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