McNally was born in Montclair, New Jersey. He received his bachelor's and graduate degrees from the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He is based out of New York City and resides in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
From 1994 until 1998 Joe McNally was LIFE magazine's staff photographer, the first one in 23 years. His most well known series is the "Faces of Ground Zero — Portraits of the Heroes of September 11th", a collection of 246 giant Polaroid portraits shot in the Moby C Studio near Ground Zero in a three-week period shortly after 9/11. A large group of these life-size (9' x 4') photos were exhibited in seven cities in 2002, seen by almost a million people. The exhibit and the book, printed by LIFE, helped raise approximately $2 million for the 9/11-relief effort.
McNally has contributed for the National Geographic magazine for 20 years. One of his photographic projects for the magazine was "The Future of Flying," a 32-page cover story, published in December 2003, commemorating the centennial observance of the Wright brothers' flight. This story was the first all digital shoot for the magazine. This issue was a National Magazine Award Finalist, and one of the magazine’s most popular covers.
He has shot cover stories for Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, Geo, Fortune, New York, Business Week, LIFE and Men’s Journal, among others. McNally’s advertising, marketing and promotional work includes FedEx, Nikon, Sony, Land's End, General Electric, MetLife, Bogen, Adidas, Kelby Media Group, Wildlife Conservation Society, Epson, and American Ballet Theatre.
McNally published three books so far:
- 2008 The Moment It Clicks
- 2009 The Hotshoe Diaries
- 2011 Sketching Light
Awards and honors
McNally has been described by American Photo magazine as perhaps the most versatile photojournalist working today and was listed as one of the hundred most important people in photography.
In January 1999 Kodak and Photo District News honored McNally by inducting him into their Legends Online archive. In 2001 Nikon bestowed a similar honor when McNally was placed on NikonNet.com's list of Legends Behind the Lens.
He has received the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for magazine photography and has been honored by Pictures of the Year International, World Press Photo, and the Art Directors Club. He has also been recognized by the magazines Photo District News, American Photo, Applied Arts magazine, Communication Arts, and Graphis Inc..
- McNally, Joe. Faces of Ground Zero. Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001.
- The Moment It Clicks: Photography secrets from one of the world's top shooters, by Joe McNally
- Hot Shoe Diaries, The: Big Light from Small Flashes, by Joe McNally
- Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash, by Joe McNally
- "Joe McNally, Photographer" National Geographic; Accessed January 11, 2007 Archived November 21, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.