Michele McNally: A Transformational Figure in Photojournalism

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Michele McNally, Who Elevated Times Photography, Dies at 66”:

Michele McNally, who elevated photojournalism at The New York Times as its first director of photography and later as a top newsroom manager in a 14-year tenure that brought the paper six Pulitzer Prizes for news and feature photography, died in Yonkers, N.Y….

Ms. McNally was named The Times’s director of photography in 2004 by Bill Keller, the executive editor at the time. The next year, she was promoted to assistant managing editor, becoming the first photo editor to join the top echelon of newsroom management known as the masthead.

“She was a transformational figure in photojournalism,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s current executive editor. “She walked into newsrooms where photography had taken a back seat for too long, and forced it into the fore.”

When Ms. McNally retired in 2018, Mr. Baquet and Joseph Kahn, the managing editor, said in a memo that during her tenure The Times had won more Pulitzer Prizes, George M. Polk Awards, Overseas Press Club honors, Emmys and other citations for photography “than most news organizations have won for their entire reports.”

Among the Pulitzer Prize winners on her watch 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.

In 2008, Ms. McNally herself won the Jim Gordon Editor of the Year Award for photojournalism from the National Press Photographers Association, and 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.

Talented photographers and photo editors had preceded Ms. McNally at The Times, but the newspaper was better known for showcasing its writers and reporters. From the start, Ms. McNally made her position clear. “Michele was blunt in saying the paper’s photography was not living up to its words,” as Mr. Baquet put it.

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 advent of nytimes.com online also vastly expanded opportunities to complement articles with images and to present stories visually.

“She has pushed a reluctant newsroom, hired an all-star staff and made The Times the finest visual report in the country,” Mr. Baquet and Mr. Kahn said. “Along the way she displayed tremendous humanity when Times photographers found themselves in harm’s way.”

Michele Angela Fiordelisi was born in Brooklyn to Rose Francis (Martire) Fiordelisi, an administrative assistant and seamstress, and Michael Leo Fiordelisi, who worked for the Post Office.

After graduating from South Shore High School, she studied mass communications at Queens College from 1973 to 1975 and then took film courses at Brooklyn College. She worked briefly in the audio and video division of the Brooklyn Public Library and was hired as a sales representative by the agency Sygma Photo News in 1977.

Eliane Laffont, her first boss at Sygma, remembered Ms. McNally as “a giant in a tiny body — very blunt, very fast, very street smart, a bundle of energy.”

At about 5 feet tall, Ms. McNally was said to have been self-conscious about her height but never deterred by it. As she explained to colleagues during a retirement toast, “Once, during a disagreement, my old boss told me, ‘You are small, but you just don’t know it.’

Other former colleagues recalled her immutable support for photographers in the field and her forthrightness in assessing their work.

“You never had to wonder where you or your work stood in her eyes,” said Pancho Bernasconi at Getty Images. “She loved great photography along with the brave and dedicated photographers who made those images.”…

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.

Meaghan Looram, whom Ms. McNally hired at Fortune and who succeeded her as director of photography at The Times, said: “She proceeded to teach me everything I know about visual editing, about the art of making an inspired match between photographer and story, about coaching photographers and editors into discovering their own excellence, and about managing people with empathy and compassion.”

Ms. McNally had never been a photographer herself — “I knew I couldn’t capture what I felt on film, or pixels,” she told readers in an online Q. and A. feature. But, she added: “I am a visual person. I can’t just tell you stuff, I have to show you.”

Asked what advice she would give to fledgling photojournalists, she replied: “Be certain of your mission, but be prepared to constantly grow. Work hard, very hard. Be forever curious, persistent and gracious. When people let you into their lives, realize that it is a gift.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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