Walk Through the Years « Joe McNally Photography

I remember when the enormity of the NYC Marathon really hit me. A few years ago, I was in a helicopter, flying eyeball to eyeball with Verrazzano, looking north at the distant Manhattan skyline, and I saw the cables supporting the bridge move. And not just, you know, squirm. They tremble, crackle, jump, vibrate. The weight and heavy motion of the trooping band of runners, their legs moving up and down, like pistons, shivered the drawbridge designed for heavy objects to roll over them in a relatively smooth horizontal fashion. The structure was unusual for thousands of humans doing the Lindy Hop equivalent over that span of time.

The race which began in 1970 with 127 competitors circling Central Park grew over time to traverse all five regions and involved more than 50,000 runners of varying skill and endurance levels. It has become a classic marker on the New York calendar. It ties the city into a spirit of joy, even if just for a day.

I covered it a lot, through the late 70s, into the 80s and 90s, in film, and then into the 2000s and the digital age. This is generally not an event where one can “go wrong”. The huge waves of runners coming at your lens, be they wide or long, have a built-in graphic impact, with shadows and patterns galore. If you envision 50,000 runners coming your way, relatively slowly, it’s time to investigate carpentry or macrame as a weekend venture. But as always in photography, you give a little and you get a little. If you fly, you get an incredible view, but it’s sweat, blood, and tears on the runway. If you’re on the trail, you’re looking for the humanity and fun nature of the volunteers and enthusiasts who help and encourage the runners. But forget the great overview. If you use street level as a foothold, chances are you have to bring a footrest which is certainly fun to carry all day. If you go to Verrazzano for an early wave of runners, you’ll be stuck there. That’s your coverage day. Today’s top runners are very fast, hard to start and finish.

(Although, in 1978, for UPI, I went to the middle of the bridge, then walked out and took the subway back to Manhattan and got to the finish line to photograph Bill Rogers recording one of his wins. The entire area around the finish line was lined with tight, so I kicked down the lining of the railing and pushed my way to the photo bridge (all your photo competitors always greet you warmly when they’ve been standing there for hours and camped in position and you show up late, push in and shoot over the shoulder I managed to shoot Rogers ending with an F2 and a Nikkor 80-200 f4.5 drag zoom. I was willing to smash through the fences and push my way through the crowd like a pull alert because I dreaded going back to the newsroom and confronting Larry DeSantis with no final picture. (Fear is a big motivation on the pitch.)

Sometimes the motivation is sheer annoyance. I came out to the finish area one year, very early, and learned from the track attendant that another photographer, Peter B. Kaplan, had arranged a tow truck to place him on one of the main cables. I demand equal access for UPI. Peter B. is completely nuts, but I’m talking right away. No seat belts, round surface, slick as snot from the early fog. The crane operator is cheerful. “Next stop is the river!” he said as he backed up the crane. Peter and I finished it off, because he insisted that I stay behind him, so you can see him in this frame, standing on the wires. (Runners taking leaks from the bridge at the bottom of the photo are also fun. One hopes that no cruise ships leave the harbor at that time. Alternatively, one could reason that this is a fitting punishment for anyone stupid enough to take one on a cruise.) This chrome, over the years of storage, developed a kind of measles, and was full of yellowish spots. But then, it’s a 40-year-old Ektachrome, so one could argue that it’s better than the storm I’ve weathered.

Long lens from the same point.

films from the air. Below was taken for Nat Geo, with a Fujica 617 Pano camera. You’re only going to get four frames on this camera with a roll of 120. Reloading that thing in an open door helicopter is exciting.

Go digital. I did mention there were over 50,000 runners.

And life goes on in NYC on race day.

And including fall leaves is good information for viewers.

It’s always cool when runners crash into the Manhattan canyon.

The harsh light casts a harsh black shadow.

Forms from the air.

Early coverage, from Verrazzano. I suspect they don’t let you do this anymore. Shot by my good friend Dennis McDonald, who has had an amazing career as a lifelong newspaper photographer. We were still children on that bridge.

The photo above closes the book, The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer. The accompanying text is below.

I have been writing this book for the last two years, and I have done it thinking about it for the last five years, and living it for the last forty.

The life of a photographer is mostly about climbing safety rail and peep out, and so on, and so on. And we look after doing so, is wrong, despite the fact that it is often nothing there to see, or what is seen is disappointing, irrelevant, dull, and hardly worth the effort, let alone the risk to ourselves.

But we do it anyway. Repeatedly, without guarantee success, safety, or remuneration. Because there may be pictures there. Impossible, but possible. And those tantalizing possibilities is the endless fuel that fuels the passion of photography, and make you climb the fence, even when logic says stay put. The winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, has depth eloquence and understanding of the human condition, perhaps unknowingly wrote the best description of photography career. In fact, it is carved on his tombstone to the north Ireland.

“Walk on air against your better judgment.”

More tk…. have to keep running.

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