Michele McNally is dead. She was one of the great photo editors of our time. The one that brought photography into the New York Times in its own right. She was also a beautiful character.
We will soon come back to the life of Michele McNally through the testimonies of people who knew her.
Here is the announcement that David Schonauer published yesterday in his online magazine ProPhotoDaily.
“She was a transformational figure in photojournalism.”
So noted New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet in a statement published yesterday, when the newspaper announced that Michele McNally, former photography director of the Times, had died on Feb. 18 in a hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. She was 66. The cause was complications of pneumonia, the Times reported.
When McNally retired from the Times in 2018, she did indeed leave behind a different type of publication. “She walked into newsrooms where photography had taken a back seat for too long, and forced it into the fore,” Baquet said.
“Talented photographers and photo editors had preceded Ms. McNally at The Times, but the newspaper was better known for showcasing its writers and reporters,” noted the Times yesterday. McNally set out to change that, and succeeded. “She demonstrated how articles in the newspaper could be enhanced visually to attract more readers and even how stories could be told through photographs alone,” The Times added. “The advent of nytimes.com online also vastly expanded opportunities to complement articles with images and to present stories visually.”
McNally was named The Times’s director of photography in 2004. The next year, she was promoted to assistant managing editor, becoming the first photo editor to join the top echelon of newsroom management.
Among the photographers who won Pulitzer Prizes during her tenure were Damon Winter in 2009 for his coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; Josh Haner in 2014 for his photo essay on a Boston Marathon bombing victim who had lost most of both legs; and Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev, Tyler Hicks and Daniel Etter in 2016 for capturing the struggles of international refugees, noted The times.
McNally herself won the Jim Gordon Editor of the Year Award for photojournalism from the National Press Photographers Association in 2008. In both 2015 and 2017 she received the Angus McDougall Visual Editing Award from the organization Pictures of the Year International at the Missouri School of Journalism.
McNally, Brooklyn born and raised, got her start in photography as a sale rep for the Sygma photo agency in 1977. Eliane Laffont, her boss at Sygma, remembered McNally as “a giant in a tiny body — very blunt, very fast, very street smart, a bundle of energy.” (McNally stood about five feet tall.) She was picture editor of Time Life’s Magazine Development Group in the early 1980s, then picture editor of Fortune magazine from 1986 until she joined The Times in 2004.
McNally was never a photographer herself. “I am a visual person. I can’t just tell you stuff, I have to show you,” she once said.
By David Schonauer. First published in ProPhotoDaily