For more than 40 years, Wally McNamee was a photographer who had an instinct for being in the right place to capture photos that defined the events of an era, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam War veterans to world leaders and the Olympics. Along the way, some of the most recognized photojournalists of the time knew McNamee both as a lifelong friend and as someone who could routinely beat them out for the best photo from an assignment.
McNamee died on November 17, 2017, in Virginia. He was 84. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on December 2, 2017, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 2609 N. Glebe Road, Arlington, Virginia. The family asks that memorial contributions be sent to The Committee to Protect Journalists.
McNamee enjoyed his career because “He lived and breathed the news,” said his son Win McNamee, who is a photojournalist for Getty Images. “He was a newsman through and through.”
Win described his father as someone who loved hosting parties, the comradery of photographers, and his family.
“Aside from being my father, he was also my very best friend,” Win said. “If you were an admirer of his abilities as a news photographer you’d be ten times more impressed by his abilities and talents as a father.”
McNamee’s entry into journalism came in 1950 when he started as a copy boy for The Washington Post, hoping to become a sports writer. Instead, he found himself hanging out with the photographers. He enlisted in the Marines and learned photography at the Combat Photography School alongside fellow student Eddie Adams who became one of those lifelong friends. McNamee served tours in Japan and Korea before returning to the civilian world.
The Post rehired him as a photographer in 1955. There, he covered his first U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower. It was a start of a career of more than 40 years that included coverage of every president up to Bill Clinton. In 1968, McNamee became a staff photographer for Newsweek magazine in the Washington bureau and worked there for 30 years, credited with more than 100 cover photographs.
In 2005, the National Press Photographers Association awarded McNamee the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, the highest honor bestowed by the NPPA. Retired by that point, McNamee earned the Sprague Award for his contributions as a speaker and faculty member at workshops and his dedication to mentoring young photojournalists.
McNamee was also named Photographer of the Year four times by the White House News Photographers' Association, the first time in 1957. He also won in 1968, 1974 and 1983. More than 300,000 of his images are in the Wally McNamee Photographic Archive housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center of the University of Texas.
“Wally was just a great news photographer, a great magazine news photographer,” said photographer Dennis Brack, a friend and frequently one of McNamee’s competitors in the field.
When McNamee moved to Newsweek, the magazine was just beginning to use multiple color photos in stories, and McNamee made his transition to regularly shooting color film. McNamee was the only staff photographer at Newsweek, but Time magazine had built up a photo staff, and Brack was one of those photographers. Despite the numbers advantage, the Time photographers knew that McNamee frequently got the better photos.
“He would clean our clocks about every other time,” Brack said. “He was a force to be dealt with.”
In 1983 McNamee was sent to cover the U.S.-led invasion of Grenada. In his account, McNamee described how Newsweek charted a small jet to get journalists there and wired $20,000 to the Washington office for their expenses.
The flight to Grenada was diverted to Barbados after the U.S. military denied clearance to land. There, a network TV crew was negotiating for a 50-foot sailboat to get them to Grenada. McNamee declined their invitation to join in their transportation and bargained his deal for a Boston Whaler on simple terms: $1,000 to get them closer to Granada by reaching Palm Island, another $1,000 to bring them back and $8,000 if they could get to Grenada.
It was a rough trip in 5-foot seas, but they made it to Palm Island and early the next morning, headed to Grenada. Near the island, they came upon a line of naval ships blocking their way. Suddenly, one of them pulled away, leaving a gap that the Boston Whaler slipped through. They landed on a beach at the Ramada resort.
On shore, McNamee and freelance photographer Jean-Louis Atlan, a Sygma photographer hired by Newsweek for the trip, headed up to the road and saw troops hunkered down. They made a few quick photos, and McNamee recalled calling out something like “We’re American journalists and are right in back of you.”
Despite having slipped in behind the U.S. lines, McNamee was able to convince the battalion commanding officer to let them stay. The lieutenant colonel, who had the nickname “Mad Jack,” said they could take all the photos they wanted.
McNamee, with his military background, had prepared for Grenada as he did for every assignment, going in knowing as much as he could about the story. For his everyday outlook, however, McNamee didn’t take everything seriously.
For instance, Brack said the two of them were in Brussels during Richard Nixon’s first presidential trip abroad in 1969, and their first day there was heavily overcast and dark, barely bright enough for their low ISO color film. When the editor reviewed the take, he contacted McNamee and said the photos were fine but that they looked “gloomy.” McNamee told him, “Well, we did have our gloom filters on.” The editor responded: “Well, take them off immediately!”
That gregarious nature also meant McNamee had many dedicated friendships. A little more than a month before he died, photographer David Hume Kennerly organized a dinner party for McNamee to welcome him back to the D.C. area after his years of retirement in South Carolina.
Dick and Germain Swanson hosted the party, and the guests included a gathering of photojournalism legends including Kennerly, David Burnett, Dirck Halstead, Diana Walker, Frank Johnston, John Ficara and Dennis Brack. Don Gonyea, a political correspondent for NPR, was also there along with McNamee’s son Win, who has known many of these photographers most of his life.
“It was wonderful,” Win said. “You could just sense the absolute affection they all had for each other.”
Brack said that they all knew McNamee’s health was failing, including Wally himself, but that McNamee wasn't going to let that slow down a good party.
“It was just a beautiful day, and Wally was doing everything he could to just be the old Wally,” Brack said.
McNamee could only manage about an hour before he had to leave, but he encouraged his friends to stay and continue visiting and telling stories like all journalists love to do.