Ridgefield photographer packs his camera bags for Tokyo games

Kieran Smith isn't the only resident representing Ridgefield at the Olympics this summer. While the town native competes in the pool for Team USA, photographer Joe McNally will shoot the action from the sidelines for Zuma Press, the world's largest independent press agency.

McNally, 68, has been a professional photographer since 1978. He remarked with a hearty laugh that he’s been in the industry “longer than it’d make sense to be.” Over the past 40 years he has freelanced for a handful of wire services, shot for Sports Illustrated and National Geographic and was the last staff photographer Life Magazine ever hired.

Tokyo marks McNally’s fourth appearance at the games, but even he wouldn’t call himself a “sports-action photographer.” Days before boarding his first flight since last March, McNally spoke with The Ridgefield Press about his storied career, his prior Olympic experiences and the human endeavors that a camera can capture.

A brief history

Before becoming an ambassador for Nikon USA, McNally worked at the New York Daily News as a copy boy. He then graduated to the photo lab processing film as a studio apprentice, but craved the beat of the streets.

McNally quit the Daily News and became a “stringer” for United Press International, The Associated Press and The New York Times. In one week he could complete assignments for each of them.

“Bodies on the subway, a baseball game at Yankee Stadium,” he recalled. “It was the grist of the daily news cycle.”

It was when he joined ABC Studios as a network photographer that McNally was introduced to the world of color, which “lit up” his imagination, he said. Since most newspapers back then were printed in black and white, magazines seemed like the natural next step.

He left the “cyclical” world of television specials and political campaigns in 1981, noting that he even followed Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy in their bids for public office.

“My first day as a freelancer was the day that Reagan got shot,” McNally deadpanned.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s McNally’s work could be found on the glossy pages of Sports Illustrated, Life Magazine and National Geographic. His contract with the former brought him to California in 1984.

Olympic trials

“Los Angeles was the Olympics that Carl Lewis owned,” McNally said. “It was wonderful but I was a babe in the woods. I had no experiences at a huge sporting event like that. It was an eye-opener for sure.”

The crew of photographers Sports Illustrated sent to L.A. were “magicians” at the craft, McNally said. He would often watch them work, emulate their style and ask advice on how to shoot such fast-paced events.

In 2000 McNally traveled to Sydney for the Millennium Olympics, where he adjusted his lens to capture scenes surrounding the spectacle instead. He also employed this technique in Rio during the 2016 summer games, where the glamorous energy of a local samba school and the colorful reverie of the closing ceremonies were framed front and center.

But even the most joyous celebrations can’t keep controversy at bay.

Fourth times the charm

“At its best it’s a political animal,” McNally said of the Games. “There’s always some sort of controversy around any Olympics now. In Rio it was Zika and now it’s COVID.”

Before the Olympics were postponed, McNally spent the early months of 2020 doing pre-Olympic features in Tokyo for Zuma Press. The rumblings of a possible pandemic sounded all over the world, yet McNally thought there was no way the committee would call off the games.

“But the drumbeat of COVID kept getting louder,” he said. “So much for my planning.”

This year, photographers need tickets as well as their press credentials to get into “high-demand venues” like track and field and swimming. McNally, however, happens to enjoy shooting events that garner less of an audience.

“I always loved to shoot table tennis because it’s so bloody hard to shoot. The athletes move so amazingly quick,” he said. “And the cycling tracks are wonderful; it’s such a blur of color and action when the riders go by.”

Camera work in a COVID world

McNally disclosed that he’s bringing vintage Nikon lenses to Tokyo. The models he packed aren’t even produced anymore and have “a particular background field to them,” he said.

Of the 33 featured sports, he plans to focus on archery — “very static but very intense” — table tennis, wrestling, weightlifting and swimming, if he can get in.

Since the games will take place without spectators, McNally must choose his backgrounds carefully. “There’s a news point to make since there’s not gonna be any fans in the stand, but pictorially it could be kind of lonely,” he said.

What will remain, however, is the sheer joy of competition and athletic endeavor, something the Kieran Smiths of the world — those devoid of sponsorships and endorsements — strive for.

“At the end of the day, it’s a celebration of athletic achievement,” McNally said. These athletes work very hard for a very brief moment in the sun, and most of them labor in obscurity … The camera stands in service to that.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com