S H OT Bernstein at work
Joe McNally is a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens. His images have been printed in Life and National Geographic. His photographs are held in numerous collections, including the National Portrait Gallery of the United States and the Library of Congress. In the wake of 9/11, Joe used the world’s only life-size Polaroid camera for his Faces of Ground Zero exhibition, which raised $2 million for the relief effort. Awards Joe has won include the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for magazine photography. www.joemcnally.com Most photographers can be defined by one subject area, but Joe McNally is harder to label. He describes himself as a ‘generalist’, able to turn his hand to anything, which is probably why Life magazine made him their first staff photographer in 23 years when he was appointed to the role in 1994. Choosing his best shot is a far from easy task.
However, McNally has chosen this photograph of the composer Leonard Bernstein working at his home in Connecticut. “It has a lot of meaning for me in terms of an intersection with an artist, observing an artist at work,” says McNally. “It was published in Life magazine. It was a story about him turning 70.”
McNally spent two days with the legendary composer of West Side Story. “I had worked with him a number of times, so I knew what I was getting into,” McNally recalls. “He was very much a volcano of a man. He could erupt, but he was also gregarious and brilliant and wonderful and spontaneous, and all those things you associate with being a consummate artist.”
Fortunately, Bernstein was in a good mood on this particular day: “I think he enjoyed the idea of being in Life magazine and having that attention being paid to him at that point in his life. He was really writing music when I photographed him.”
McNally used a 24mm lens on his Nikon F3, loaded with Kodachrome 64, and brought flash heads to supplement the other light sources within the frame. “It’s all flash-lit inside, but the main light in the photograph is the work lamp on the piano. I just turned it so it’s on the sheet of music.
McNally says, “As an environmental portrait I would say it is one of my more successful portraits. In terms of being a successful picture of an artist at work, I think it’s a pretty good one. Life ran it as a two-page spread.”
According to McNally, the picture was placed “notably” in a couple of photo competitions, including Pictures of the Year. It was one of the last pictures taken of Bernstein in his home – he died two years later in 1990.