Newsweek legend & Hall of Famer captured history through his lens.
Wally McNamee’s career as a photojour-nalist for Newsweek took him around the world - from the Olympics to the White House - covering the movers and shakers of the 20th century.
“It’s very, very hard work,” McNamee said of covering the Olympics. “It’s very frustrating work. It’s as much a bureaucracy as the federal government, and after the terrorist attack there [Munich in 1972] the security was very stringent.” But at the same time, “It’s very exciting,” he said. “I always liked sports and there you are with the best athletes in the world. It’s hard to get really good pictures - you have to use big, long lenses - but it’s worth it.”
His dad was a part-time sportswriter who covered the minor league Harrisonburg Turks in Harrisonburg, VA, where McNamee was born in 1932. “I thought I wanted to be a sportswriter,” McNamee said. But during a stint as a copy boy at the Washington Post he had a shot at covering sports as a photographer and got hooked.
I always considered myself a photojournalist, a news photographer, from the time that I worked at the Washington Post” he said. “Being a good sports photographer requires you to be on top of your game, because you have to be ready.”
McNamee’s son is now chief photographer for the news division of Getty Images. “Still photographers have always had to do their business like salmon swimming up stream, to fight for access to cover sports and politics,” he said.
“TV people pretty much get what they want. We would get what was left over. More often than not, still photographers have a better eye for picking out vantage points because they are more visual. Still pictures would be far superior visually ... Those guys are more into technical stuff,” McNamee said, reflecting on television videographers.
“I think it’s awful, I can’t believe it’s happening,” McNamee said of the decline of the newspaper industry. “Look at The Island Packet – they put in new presses and reduced the size of the paper. It seems like they’re defeating their product. It’s not as good as it used to be, at a time when you have to fight for every reader.”
McNamee is still in touch with many of the journalists with whom he worked at Newsweek. “In 1998 we had four or five photographers and half a dozen reporters covering the Olympics,” he said. But this year, Newsweek sent only one reporter from the US to cover the Beijing Olympics and ran only one picture in the magazine from the opening ceremony.
McNamee’s introduction to the South Carolina Lowcountry came as a Marine recruit in 1952. “I loved that place,” he said of Parris Island. “I went back there a couple of times working on stories. It’s a very dramatic place.”
In Washington, McNamee’s wife worked as an aide to Carroll Campbell (R-SC) when he served in Congress before becoming governor, and the McNamees began visiting South Carolina for vacations. “We just sort of fell in love with this place,” he said.
McNamee was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2000, and the visual impairment left him legally blind and unable to drive a car.
The McNamees decided to leave their home in the Shenandoah Valley behind and move permanently to Hilton Head Island. “That way I could ride my bike to a lot of different stuff and I would have some mobility and independence,” he said.
Now a Sea Pines resident, McNamee’s last photo assignment was January 20, 2001 – the inauguration of President George W. Bush. “The president I liked to cover the most was Richard Nixon,” he said. “There was always something going on around that guy, be it something good or something bad.” And he recalls President Gerald R. Ford as a “wonderful human being,” and Bill Clinton as “The Natural.”
McNamee has donated his work, hundreds of thousands of images, to The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. “We love Texas and that gives us an excuse to go,” he said.
To see samples of his work, visit “A Guide to the Wally McNamee Photographic Archive, ca. 1955-2000” at University of Texas at Austins Center for American History: lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/00305/cah-00305.html.