The day Joe McNally took my picture

Photo by Joe McNally - Montreal, 2012 Have you ever noticed that the day you leave the house without makeup is the day that a world-famous, award-winning photographer wants to take your picture? Until a few days ago, me neither......

Days after said event I am still smiling big humongous smiles to myself, and I probably will for a very long time. In fact, I may never think that I am ordinary ever again.

I went to a lighting seminar given by Joe McNally, the One Light, Two Light seminar tour. I had heard the name before and I knew he was a big name, National Geographic, Life, Sports Illustrated, etc, but I had no idea who he really was until I stumbled on a YouTube video where he was sitting down with Scott Kelby and critiquing amateur portfolios. He had some very basic advice to give which I had not thought about and was exceedingly useful. He discussed technique, improvements, and how to present yourself to your clients. But the part that I found most interesting was his philosophy on what he does for a living and how he approaches his job and his art and the things that a photographer has to think about in order to create a photo that speaks for itself. I found myself nodding my head and listening intently because it all made so much sense and was articulate, thoughtful, and simple. I am always impressed when a talented person doesn't take himself seriously, knows he is fallible and just like everyone else is this world - hoping to discover wonder and the things that make us smile when we step out the door. As I watched the video clip, I wanted him to keep talking so I could extract all the information out of his brain and understand how he thinks about creating work with meaning.

Sometimes things come into your life at the right time and have a tremendous impact. I wanted to sit down with this guy and have a beer and listen to him talk about everything.

When I discovered that he would be giving a seminar in Montreal a week later, I signed up right away.

I went with my friend Irene, a professional photographer who is always looking to improve her skills. We found parking, and after some brief confusion about the location, we arrived at the right place and found some seats in the room that weren't at the very back, probably middle-esque. All the front seat were taken by the people who knew exactly where they were going and probably arrived quite early. (As an aside, our moment of confusion landed us in a location that I am going back to photograph.) There were about 300 people there, the room was large and dark and fairly soul sucking.

The seminar started and Joe came out and after an intro and asked us for any specific problems or challenges that we came to solve. As usual, almost no one said anything, which is a shame because this can really set the tone for how the day goes. A few people contributed, and I got up the courage to raise my hand and say something. It seems that once I psych myself up to ask a question, I can't really stop.

He warned the audience that he would be looking around the room for audience members to demonstrate with and started in with lighting and very basic principles and moving through different techniques. I was taking it in, but I was really paying attention to Joe's attitude and the way that he spoke to the people he was shooting and his assistant. He did point this out at the end, but I noticed how polite he was with his assistant Drew and the kind approach he had to the subjects, saying very little, but also trying to make them feel at ease. My friend Marilyn also has an excellent and natural way of talking to her clients and I love that they can make it look so easy when they have so many things going on in their heads.

When Joe said that he would be choosing audience members, I do what I always do at every show that asks for volunteers from the audience - I secretly hope I get picked. When I was a kid I wanted to be picked to go up on stage to be part of magic tricks, or touch snakes, or get hypnotized, whatever, I wasn't fussy, it just looked like fun. Of course it almost never happened, and when it did my tendency was to freeze like a deer in headlights once I got on stage and only 6 hours later think of something witty I could have said instead of simulating a taxidermied human. Last year I got pulled into an improv sketch and you could almost see the pain on the audiences' faces. That night I woke up at 3am and thought of a whole bunch of stuff I could have done and said. If only the audience had been there to witness it....

So despite my track record, I'm still hoping, hoping, hoping, because to hell with me looking like a moron, I really wanted to be photographed by Joe McNally because how many times is that going to happen to me unless I suddenly realise we are related? How cool would it be to have that memory for the rest of my life?

At some point I noticed that he was looking over in my general direction fairly often, but then I looked behind me and realised that there were two very pretty twenty-somethings sitting there. Nuts. To make myself feel better I asked a couple more questions mostly because as he continued to talk and I watched him work my mind just filled up with all this stuff I wanted to know. He was talking about lighting this huge telescope and I'm listening to how hard it was but wondering what is the process to even start a project like that? You can do all the research and drag the equipment out there, but what is going through your mind once you arrive with your truckloads of boxes? That wasn't a question I asked, but I wanted to. In fact, I wanted to be out there lighting the damn thing with him and his assistant and idly wondered if I was too old to do stuff like that.

The seminar continued and he picked other audience members, and they were all interesting, and one woman was such a hoot that we all voted for her to come back in at the end. My brain was making its concession speeches to itself as the afternoon went on, Joe was explaining something and moving over closer to our side of the room. Then he stopped, looking somewhere kind of near me I thought, and said. "I have to photograph you before the end of the day" (or something like that, honestly, I cannot be relied on for direct quotes). I automatically looked behind me, and he said, "no, you in the purple shirt looking confused". To reward Joe for listening to the telepathic requests of "pick me" that I had been sending all day, I immediately asked another question. I think that I said thank you first, although perhaps I only said it in my head. My brain instantly went into "Eeeeeeeee" mode, so I have no idea what he said until the next break. I'm glad they gave us a workbook.

I then had to sit on the information that not only had a famous photographer picked me out of a crowded room, but that had I known, I may have made more of an effort on my appearance that day instead of leaving the house with no makeup (this is fairly common, but I do make an effort occasionally), hurrying to get my kids dropped off at camp with all their gear, and trying to drink my coffee and eat my breakfast in the car and not spill too much of it on myself. I am fairly certain I had some of my daughter's scrambled eggs in my hair when Joe finally called me up on stage (as a reward for asking so many questions of course). He and Drew were very nice, I was nervous as heck and more than likely pulled a Bambi on ice, but for a few minutes I was up there in front of a soft box getting my picture taken by a normal guy with a camera who happens to be one of the best at what he does. And when you think that I only realised two weeks ago how much I admire him and now I've met him and he's taken my picture, well, you have to admit that this was pretty freakin' incredible.

So, what did I take away from this experience? For starters, I learned quite a bit about lighting and am now inspired to take my little speedlite out and use it instead of just hiding it in my bag. I was also filled with confidence to have such a great photographer tell us that we all screw up and it's expected, and to share his stories of his moments of failure and panic with us. I was also incredibly hopeful when I saw how enthusiastic he still is about what he does most of the time. This combined with the truly bizarre and coincidental circumstances that created this day for me make me believe that I am on the right path. And of course having someone I admire and am using as a mentor walk up to me and say he wants to take my picture, well, I don't think the universe could align any more perfectly. It is a moment that I will take out on my tough days and bask in.

And the verdict: everyone agrees that this is a good picture and the light is wonderful, which is what it was meant to demonstrate. Did it capture me? My friends say no, but that wasn't the purpose and the picture has  meaning to me as a fantastic memory.  It speaks to me of all the hope and wondrous things that I am discovering and the life that lies ahead. Still, if Joe wanted another kick at the can, I wouldn't say no.

Joe, thank you so much and I hope I didn't embarrass you with this, and if you and Drew come back and take my picture again, I promise I'll buy you that beer :-)

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