Neil B. McGahee’s career spanned more than 40 years as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist, documenting local, national and international events including wars in Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa and Northern Ireland. He also photographed national events such as the Haitian boatlift, the Miami race riots, numerous space shuttle launches and natural disasters like the eruption of the Mt. St. Helens volcano and Hurricane Katrina. He is also well-known for his abilities to tell stories through photo essays.
In his career, he was the winner of the 1982 Oskar Barnack Prize awarded by Leica and World Press Photo for “Charley and Wilhelm,” a story of two elderly farmers struggling to maintain their lifestyle in central Minnesota. The story also won the University of Missouri’s prestigious Pictures of the Year competition and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He was a finalist for the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for “Michael’s Legacy,” the story of a 17-year-old high school athlete and his courageous fight against bone cancer. McGahee’s work is prominently featured in “The Gold Medals: 60 Years of the World’s Best Photojournalism,” by John Morris, and “Photojournalism: The Art of the Moment,” by Bill Kuykendall, San Francisco University Press. McGahee has published a book, “In Ordinary Time,” a collection of photos, available from Blurb at http://www.blurb.com/b/1734085-in-ordinary-time.
Please talk about the images you’ve shared. They encompass several situations and document people from different cultures and ethnicities. Can you share a story or two behind these images?
Any time I went on assignment, I always looked for just average people living their lives. I think the foreword to my book, “In Ordinary Time,” really sums it up better than I can.
“Glimpses of them every day along every mile of some pointless journey to wherever. Unknowable faces on street corners and in pool halls, in dime stores and bars, soup kitchens and gas stations and strip malls and empty cars. Ordinary people living ordinary lives under ordinary circumstances — their poetic faces offering dignity to a chaotic world too busy to stop and look and appreciate. I spent almost three decades shooting photos for newspapers of events that I mostly didn’t care about, but my travels exposed me to them and I stopped and talked and pointed my camera and tried to capture a poem in the making. In ordinary time.”
I am drawn to people that are considered living in the margins of American society. Especially those just struggling to make it to the next day. There is something very noble about them and I try to capture that. The photo of the clown applying makeup was one I found while walking around a shopping center parking lot. A lot of these very small circuses and carnivals go from town to town playing one night gigs anywhere they can get permission to park. The clown was getting ready for the night show. The photo of the carnival worker at his stand surrounded by teddy bears and footballs emphasized that nobility. Despite his rather low economic standing, he was a proud man and I hope the photo reveals that. Same for the foundry worker. He labored in a hot, gritty environment, but the look on his face shows a certain contentment that no amount of money can bring.
The wide-eyed child had been deaf since birth, but cochlear implants allowed him to hear his first sound — the beep of a special ball — and it amazed him. The photo of two girls touching each others face was taken at a school for blind children. They were best friends and greeted each other with touches. The photo of the man in the bed was taken as part of a year-long documentary on AIDS patients. This man was being comforted by his “AIDS buddy,” a volunteer who spent several hours a day with him. This photo was taken a few hours before he died.
I found this homeless family living in a rural area. They had come south from Ohio expecting to find jobs and a better life, but as is so often the case, they only found heartbreak. The police officer with the lost kid was taken as I wandered around a fairground. I love to take my Leica and just wander around looking for photos. The photo of the Haitian man and his infant son was taken in the Liberty City ghetto in Miami. They had arrived on the Haitian Boatlift of the late 1970’s and i tried to capture the desperation in his eyes. While working on a documentary about itinerant farm workers in the South, I shot the photo of the pregnant black woman holding her baby in the shack she was forced to call home. This photo and the shot of the woman holding her baby while another child and a cat sit with her was taken in a very economically depressed area, but again in both photos, I tried to show the nobility in their faces. Sometimes in my travels, I encounter the same people every day. The two men staring out the window of an old gasoline station and leaning against a car seemed to always be there and one day I stopped and took their photos.
You’ve been a photojournalist for your entire life, shooting with Leica and working on a number of assignments. Can you recall one specific assignment or project that stands out from the rest or that really impacted your work as a photographer?
I spent a year documenting the life of AIDS victims in the 1990’s. I called it “AIDS Deadly Cycle,” because I didn’t stop with just one person. I photographed four men, all of whom died from the disease. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to shoot, but I think it demonstrated how relentless the disease is.
You won the Leica Oskar Barnack Award back in the early 80’s. Can you describe the experience of how it was back then considering technology has changed so much?
Other than having to take time to go to a darkroom, develop the film and make prints, I don’t really think things have changed so much. In order to get compelling images, the photographer still must first get to know his subject and learn about the person’s story before shooting images that tell the story. The camera, even at its digital best, is still a tool to compliment the photographer’s eyes.
What three tips would you give out to up and coming photographers?
1. Take time to get to know your subject and the story they tell.
2. Learn to operate your camera so well, that you can use it without even thinking about it.
3. Learn to see light rather than just look at it. I recommend reading “The Zen of Seeing,” a book that has long been out of print but it can still be found for sale on the internet. It completely changed the way I see things.
Talk about your book “In Ordinary Time”, what was the objective behind this book, and how was the creative process for putting everything together?
Although I spent most of my career shooting photos for newspapers, I was always influenced by the work of the great photographers — Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank — to name a few. I always had in the back of my mind publishing a book similar to Frank’s seminal book, “The Americans.” Although it can’t compare to Frank’s work, it fulfilled my need to see my work in print.
Lastly, as a semi-retired photographer, it’s assumed you’ll continue doing what you love. Are there any other projects you might be working on or that you want to share with the readers?
After I retired, I put the Leica cameras aside for a few years. I think I was just washed out after all those years. I did some writing and just recently began shooting photos again. Right now, I am working on a project about people who are being forced to accept a very big and very dangerous natural gas pipeline coming through the middle of their property, endangering their lives and the value of their property.
To know more about Neil, please visit his website.