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Book Bag: The Real Deal Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

14 April 2022

We have noticed over the years that the least interesting people on the planet tend to find themselves endlessly fascinating while the kind of people we wish we knew tend to exhibit a humility that almost makes them vanish from sight even when they talk about themselves.

Joe McNally falls into the latter group. In his The Real Deal, there is a lot of humility. Not the kind that's fishing for compliments but the, well, real deal.

He doesn't hide his failures, his goofs, his miscalculations, his youthful shortcomings. They are, after all, the failures that made his successes possible. And just as he learned from them, we can.

There aren't an overwhelming number of them but it did take us a long time to get through the 336 pages of this square-format book. You might suspect the format was a nod to Hasselblad but McNally is a 3:2 Nikon shooter (and Nikon Ambassador).

One reason it took so long is that it's a big book. Opened flat (and it does open flat, mercifully), the pages require 19x10 inches of available space. We couldn't take it with us anywhere to read along the way, so we had to haul it out on a hand truck to the patio on weekends. Sort of like our barbecue grill.

Even then (true story) we wrenched our back reading the last 100 pages in one captiviating sitting.

But that unwieldy format is unwieldy for a good reason. It accommodates the photographs. A whole page or sometimes two, with room to gather a few on a single page to illustrate some progression.

These aren't field notes. They're reflective little jewels that illustrate living the creative life.

There are no captions accompanying these photos but they don't need captions because right alongside them the text tells you the whole story. The graphic designer should get a Pulitzer or Academy Award or Emmy or Booker Prize or Guggenheim or something for the layout. Aren Straiger did the cover and interior design and Kim Scott did the interior layout.

If you don't know his work otherwise, McNally's gorgeous, impossible photos may be familiar to you from his blog, which we regularly cite in our Around The Horn column. We've mentioned him 272 times in the nine-plus years we've been publishing Photo Corners (before this).

And the other reason we keep citing him (besides his images) is that he's an accomplished writer. He doesn't waste your time, tells a tight story and teaches you something now and then without swatting your palm with a ruler (which, we understand, is how he was taught by five orders of nuns and the Christian Brothers).

But, to be clear, The Real Deal is not a collection of posts from his blog. And it is not an autobiography. Nor it is just a collection of war stories.

In fact, we wouldn't make too much of the subtitle ("Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer") either. These aren't field notes. They're reflective little jewels that illustrate living the creative life.

But don't mistake that description as decoration for some dry lectures on the craft. Craft is certainly part of this drama but it doesn't diminish the adventure.

Spreads. A few of our favorites.

No, the feeling we had paging through this book was that we somehow happened to be sitting cross-legged on the floor with McNally for hours one night as he showed us a few of the images he had taken over the years.

And every now and then, he'd stop at one, holding it in his hands before passing it over to us as he told its story. And the story would start with that frame but go back a bit and on further and wrap around something important to him that suddenly mattered to us.

So by the time he moved on to the next picture, you felt as if a treasure had been passed on to you.

So if you could use a little treasure to tide you over, do what we did. Clear a few square feet in your back yard and open this book (with a bottle of Aleve handy).

Then prepare to read some real jewels humbly passed off as notes like this:

Do you ever reflect on the luck of being a photographer? Time does not stop except for us.

It stops for us only when we press the shutter, of course. But we can, as McNally has here, return to the moment we stopped, reflect on our luck and look forward to what tomorrow will parade before our lens.

Luck, indeed. McNally humbly never fails to be astonished at his luck. In his mentors, in his opportunities, in finding the love of his life, no less than in capturing the images that have made his career. And when you get your hands on this book, you too will be astonished at your luck.

The Real Deal by Joe McNally, published by Rocky Nook, 336 pages, $50 (or $39.99 at

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