Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book Review: The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets From One Of The World's Top Shooters By Joe McNally

Written by T. Michael Testi


The Moment It Clicks is as hard to define as it is to put down. It isn't a coffee table book, although it certainly has the quality images to be treated as one. It isn't really a how-to do it book, but it is filled with insight and tips that make it must-reading for any photographer on any level.

Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed photographer. His 30-year career has included assignments in over 50 countries, and his images have graced the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic. During the 1990s, he was Life Magazine's sole staff photographer.

So what is The Moment It Clicks? It is a book about the 30 years of Joe McNally's photographic career and some of the images he has created. It is about the stories behind the images and the lessons learned from editors and life experiences. It is about the ups and downs of being a photographer from the side of the professional, as well as the side of the family man who has to be away too often. The Moment It Clicks is 272 pages, divided into four chapters.

This is not a book that can really be contained in chapters and chapter names. It is about the story relating to each image, and there are over 100 of them in the book. I will instead try to give the flavor of the book instead. The basic premise is that each story comes with a one-line statement that gets to the point of the image. Then McNally tells the story behind the image. Opposite of the story is the picture that is the centerpiece. Then there is the "how to get this type of shot," where he explains just a little bit about how he did it. Do not get the impression this includes detailed steps; it is a simple overview of the techniques used.

A couple of my favorites (I have to limit this; otherwise there would be 70-80 of my favorites, and it would make this longer than it already is):

"You Gotta Turn on a Dime" is the story about a shoot with musician Fiona Apple. She had just come her successful album, Tidal. She was tired of being photographed as a waif and wanted a more warrior woman image. They did this shoot with her in a suit of armor and it was not going well. She had to get to New Jersey for a show that night, and her manager was getting mad. Finally he said they had to leave now and would have to catch the subway to get there on time. McNally turned to Apple and said, "Get on the subway in the armor?" The shot was made.

"Get a Permit" is about a rooftop shot with a performance artist from New York City who is painted up in a bright gold coloring. Someone called the police, stating there was a jumper in progress. When the police arrived — huffing and puffing after climbing a six-story walkup — they were not happy. Because he had his permit, there was not a lot that they could do, and he got the shot.

"It Only Takes One" shows that if you want something badly enough, you may need to take a chance on yourself. It was 1978, and there was a strike in the newspaper industry that lasted 88 days. It included writers, truck drivers, and photographers. McNally was a copy boy. One day the UPI picture editor came in and asked him if he ever shot baseball. McNally lied and said that he had. It was the playoffs between the New York Yankees and Kansas City. The first night he got chewed out for shooting insignificant film. The next day he got what turned out to be one of the most memorable pictures of the playoffs. Again, he got the shot.

To become better at something, two things can be done. First and foremost is to go out and do it, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, make newer better mistakes, and repeat over again. The second thing is to find the people you respect and who have been successful. See what they have done, see how they have done it, and learn from their successes as well as from their mistakes.

The Moment It Clicks is a book that will give you insight into the life and career of a successful photographer. It is from someone who opens up and lets us see the full spectrum of light. It has some technically bad pictures (see the one with Tyrone Biggs, Donald Trump, Don King, and Mike Tyson), but it also has many more masterful ones, such as the one of Ozzie Smith from five different angles at once.

There is a section late in the book that describes the equipment the author uses. There is no doubt he is a professional with professional equipment. One could argue these shots are great because of the equipment, or the access to people, or settings he gets to go to that make these images so good. For some shots, this is the case, but I think most of them come from being creative and figuring out new ways to look at something ordinary. This is what I think makes The Moment It Clicks so special: it's that ability to get into someone else's mind and learn how to think differently.

I am all for going out and making mistakes and learning ones craft, but there are times when you have to look to others to see what they have done. This way, you can find what you like and dislike, and can incorporate new ideas into your own work. The Moment It Clicks focuses more on the how and the why instead of the how-to, and that is why I highly recommend this book.



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