The Digital Journalist
McNally Named Director of Photography for The New York Times
May 2004

by Don Winslow

"Our long search for someone who can lead our photojournalism to its rightful place is over," New York Times executive Editor Bill Keller wrote to the newspaper's staff in an April 28 email announcing that Michele McNally will become the Times' new director of photography in June.

McNally, who was one of this year's NPPA Best of Photojournalism judges in the still photography contest, has been the photography editor for Fortune magazine since 1986. She was a picture editor for Time Life's magazine development group before working at Fortune.

She replaces Jim Wilson as the head of the photography department. Wilson stepped down earlier this year but remains at the newspaper as a staff photojournalist. David Frank has been the interim department manager and will stay on as McNally's deputy director of photography. In her new role at the Times, McNally will report to Keller and managing editors Jill Abramson and John Geddes.

In the memo, Keller wrote that McNally is "one of the most admired editors in the world of news photography. Her magazine background may make her seem, to the uninitiated, an unusual choice to run the picture department of a major daily newspaper. But ask anyone within the Time empire, or any photographer who has worked with her, or anyone who has judged alongside her at the top photo contests -- or any of the people in our own picture department who have spent some time with her -- and you'll understand why this is an exciting moment."

While potentially exciting for the editors and staff photojournalists, for many regular freelance photojournalists accustomed to shooting photo assignments for the Times, it's also an awkward if not difficult period. Freelancers who object to the terms of the Times' new freelance photography contract and who have refused to sign it are still not working for the newspaper. Many of them met again this week in New York City at the Tribeca studio of a magazine to talk about where they stand in their attempts to negotiate with the Times' management. To date, representatives of the Times have refused requests to meet face to face with freelancers about the contract, and the paper's April 1 deadline for signing and returning the contract has passed.

It's unclear whether Keller's naming of a new director of photography will have any effect on the standoff between the Times and freelance photographers, and whether McNally's appointment signals a turning point that might move both sides toward some resolution of the dispute. McNally is widely respected in the photojournalism community and generally receives high praise from the photographers and other editors who have worked with her.

"I think it's great that Michele is taking over my old (very old) job -- but with a better title," said John G. Morris, who was picture editor for The New York Times as well as being one of the co-founders of Magnum Photos and LIFE's London picture editor during World War II. Morris is now retired and living in Paris. "She's a real professional and I hope she will soon have the goodwill of the freelance photographers."

Meanwhile, Keller's enthusiasm for McNally borders on gushing praise and clearly his words are meant to send a signal to Times' staff photojournalists that McNally has the backing of editors' row. "Michele has a breaking-news metabolism, a sharp and daring eye for the memorable image, and the know-how and relentless energy to make things happen. We're confident she will provide both the strong creative leadership we need to sustain the ambitious photography to which our readers have become accustomed in recent years, and the strong management skills to run a large and complicated department," Keller wrote in the announcement.

He also wrote that David Frank's "steady hand, high standards and human touch have kept the department on its game during this long search" and that "the fact that this was Michele's first decision [to pick Frank as deputy] -- and that Dave enthusiastically accepted -- tells you something about the judgement of our new photo chief."

"Michele's title is an upgrade from 'picture editor,' and it is meant to signify an upgrade in authority. We expect her not just to run a department, but to be a champion within the paper for adventuresome visual journalism," Keller concluded.

© Don Winslow
News Photographer magazine