Wallace McNamee, above, former Newsweek photographer, photographed by David Hume Kennerly
My wife, Caitlin, a non-fiction author and a fellow journalist, and I attended the memorial service on Saturday for former Newsweek photographer Wallace McNamee in Arlington, Virginia.
“Wally,” as he was known to those of us that worked alongside of him, was not only a master of photography/photojournalism, he was, as his son Win would say in his eulogy, a former Boy Scout, a former Marine, a loving husband, a wise father and an amazing grandfather.
For me, it was wonderful to once again be with the men and women that I had worked alongside of during my years in Washington, DC. (1985-1993) and it wasn’t lost on me that only Wallace, even in death, could bring this group together again.
Here then is my story about my first encounter with Wallace.
In the fall of 1985, I was given the opportunity to move to Washington, DC and become a bureau photographer for The New York Times. It was my dream to one day become a member of the White House Press Corps and this transfer made that dream real. It was a front row seat to history and I am so blessed to have lived it.
The late, great, George Tames had decided to retire and I was tapped to pick up the duties after he left.
One of the biggest lessons any new photographer learns about covering news at the White House or on Capitol Hill is like that old adage about real estate… “location, location, location.” In this case it was, “position, position, position” as in where on the camera stand you choose to put your tripod or where in a committee room you chose to stand or sit.
I don’t recall which committee it was, I just remember that it was a Senate hearing and I decided to arrive very early in the morning to claim what, at that time, was considered to be the best position in “the well” — that physical area between the front of the witness table and the half round shaped table — the dais, where the Senators sit and direct their questions, facing the witness. The best position is dead center, right up against the dais, where the Chairman and the ranking member of the other party, the co-chair, sit side by side.
The chairman and the co-chair would walk into the room through the door behind the dais, usually with the key witness, stand there for a few minutes chatting with each other while the photographers made their pictures. Being in the center position assured you would get all the people in the picture, including full frontal faces. The further away from the center, the more profile the subject’s faces.
So, I was the first one to arrive that morning, and quickly took the best position and knew that I was going to be standing there for a while, waiting.
Wallace McNamee walked into the hearing room and made his way to the well where he placed his camera bag down where he planned to sit, took out his cameras, loaded them, then proceeded to look at me and the position that I was holding.
I smiled at him.
He walked over and stood so close to me that his right arm was now touching my left arm and he slowly started to apply pressure on my triceps as if to move me out of my position. When I felt what he was doing, I decided to match the pressure of his arm with my own and at the same time, looking directly into his eyes, simply said to him, “Wallace?”
He looked backed at me and answered: “Jose?”
So, for what seemed like eternity, but I’m sure was no longer than several minutes we did this dance of physical pressure against one another’s arms, swaying back and forth, our feet planted solidly against each other, saying to each other:
“Wallace? Jose? Wallace? Jose? Wallace? Jose?”
I wasn’t giving up my spot. I didn’t care how senior Wallace was in the pecking order.
Eventually he stopped, smiled at me and said, “OK, you can have the center position.”
I don’t recall the rest of that hearing as I’m sure that the Senators came out with the witness, we made our pictures then settled down into our positions to photograph the rest of the hearing.
I do recall that as I got up to leave the hearing, I looked over at Wallace and he smiled at me and winked at me. Anytime I bumped into Wallace, either at the White House or some other venue on assignment, he would greet me with a booming voice, announcing my name as it SHOULD be pronounced and giving me a friendly, loving wink.
When I learned from his son Win that he had passed away, my memory was flooded with all of the times that he and I worked alongside of each other. The smile that he would share with colleagues, the wisdom that he imparted, the joy he took in his work, all of it was infectious.
First encounters with anyone that you come to respect and work with are always the ones that make the deepest impression. I often think what would have happened if I had surrendered my position to Wallace on that day in the Senate hearing room. I often think that here was a senior member of the photo-tribe testing the newbie to see what he was made of and I like to think, I passed.
He was never “Wally” to me. He will always be “Wallace.”
Win McNamee, left, with his father Wallace during a Presidential trip with George W. Bush to New York City in 1990. Image courtesy of Win McNamee
His son Win, a photographer for Getty Images, delivered the eulogy for his father at yesterday’s service.
It was moving, powerful, and one phrase resonated most for me:
“In the chaos of life, CHARACTER counts.”
More on Wallace’s life can be found here: http://wapo.st/2zJsq80