A Photographer’s Life – Dorothea Lange + Joe McNally

Copyright Dorothea Lange

 “I slid down in the seat and began to weep. I wept for her, for me, but mostly because the siren call of my first big story with a yellow border around it was more powerful than the call of fatherhood.”

Joe McNally, The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World’s Top Shooters

I bought Joe McNally’s book four years ago whilst I was looking to further my lighting techniques. When the book arrived I quickly flicked through it to see if the light in his images was the kind of light i was expecting it and hoping it would be –  there were many pictures of Joe’s work and without a doubt this guy has done his fair share of ‘photography kilometers’.

That night I curled up in bed and opened the book and read the above quote that referred to Joe leaving in a taxi to go off for his first National Geographic assignment and leaving his daughter and family behind. I had instant tears in my eyes.

What honesty and there it was in print for the whole world to see. I had a new admiration for a photographer I didn’t know simply because he had the courage to own up to something so painful and distressing as choosing a magazine assignment over fatherhood. And on that day he chose photography.

I am currently reading Dorothea Lange’s A Life Beyond Limits and for those  of you who don’t know her name you may know her work, she is the photographer who took many of the American depression’s most memorable photos (see above) and she too like Joe McNally was torn betweeen photography and in her case motherhood.

I am finding her story fascinating, a photographer in the 1920’s when women rarely had a career but choosing an artistic path was not encouraged. She decided to be a photographer but was told by her parents to do something she could ‘fall back onto’. Dorothea was smart enough to know even at a young age that all her youthful energy would be eaten up learning something she didn’t care about and adamantly pursued photography.

What a life and what hard decisions she had to make. She married, supported an artist husband, had children, ran a studio, cooked cleaned and provided financial and emotional support for them all. The writer describes Lange in today’s language as a ‘superwoman’, reading her story I was shaking my head knowing how much energy it takes for me to do what I do and asking myself ‘ I don’t know how she did it’.

Lange’s photographic journey leads her to documentary photography in the depression and a new husband. Her love for photography  asks her to make heart breaking decisions about leaving her family months at a time, a little like Joe McNally.

I often wonder how photographers ‘have it all’? I know as the years pass heading to the airport to leave my husband and my darling kitty becomes harder and harder. What if I had a child or children? What decision would I make?

For those of you who interested in photography and the journey of a photographer’s life I think you will find A Life Beyond Limits a fascinating read.

Any photographers out there that are torn?

Love to hear your thoughts.



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9 Responses to A Photographer’s Life – Dorothea Lange + Joe McNally

  1. Tamera says:

    Sure. As a wedding photographer, I long ago gave up weekends that other people take for granted. And a lot of times, vacations are structured around shoots or weddings. And finally, as a small business owner of my own studio, simply put: if I’m awake I’m working. My mind never switches off. It’s photography/business, photography/business, photography/business 24/7/365. Sometimes even I get tired of it; I can’t imagine how it must be for my loved ones!

    On a side note, Joe McNally is the sh*t. I love him. And though I have a huge amount of admiration for Dorothea Lange’s beautiful work, I must admit that I know next to nothing about her personal life and struggles. Your description makes me want to run out and buy the book immediately! Thanks for blogging about it!

    • Carla says:

      HI Tamara, I know the feeling of 24/7.. I think the important is to make a concerted efforted to get away.. Even if its a 30 min walk.. Carla

  2. As a small business owner, I think my current project is going to be my last one + then something else turns up,always happens that way. Love the honesty! + must get that book! xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

  3. With so many women showing that it not only can be done but done well the question might be asked why the need to choose one over the other. Going on a photo shoot doesn’t mean that Joe chose photography over fatherhood, that isn’t something that ever goes away it’s part of who you are every moment.

    Being a mother opens up the world in ways you never see coming. A choice is made in each moment, from one moment to the next. You have me heading to the library to find both these books, Dorethea has long been a favorite of mine yet I didn’t know about her personal life.

    sending love x

  4. In return… you might enjoy this Carla. For anyone wanting to lead a creative life it’s a must. http://www.lenswork.com/lgc.htm

  5. As a single parent of a 16 year-old daughter who has done it “all” alone (without any help financial or otherwise from her father) I just have to say that “you just do it without thinking about it”! When working as a writer, director and choreographer of childrens’ theatre for the ABC I travelled interstate often and hard as it was – it was something that I had to do – both from a financial point of view and also for me. It was creative, highly rewarding and as long as Alexandra was safe and well-looked after at home (thanks to an amazing support group of family and friends)I was able to take on the jobs knowing that I would soon be home. I believe that it was healthy for us both (for me especially to breathe my own air) and I am blessed today to have a really close, strong, happy and healthy relationship with her. Lisa is right – it’s about choices and sometimes the hardest choice (to go) is the best choice – at least for me, as I believe it made me a better person and better mother. I was able to balance my life more fully and that’s what it’s all about in the end – a question of balance. Am off to find the books – thank you Carla. F xx

  6. sarah says:

    Iconic photograph! Inspired to read the book…..

  7. Your writing about both photographers makes me truly impatient to get these books! Bel posting, grazie
    (just went to Italy and can not swing myself out of the Italian mood)

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