Performance Art: Joe McNally's Mirror Magic Act


Joe McNally is known for imaginative ideas and the ability to turn them into striking photographs.

These photographs, for example.

Joe's first use of mirror-image photography was a Sports Illustrated photograph of Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, whose extraordinary abilities earned him the nickname The Wizard of Oz. "It was said he looked like he was playing shortstop from five different positions at once," Joe says, and so he set up five mirrors to reflect and photograph the Wizard. "It seemed like a good interpretation of the editorial soul of the picture, which was how magical this guy was."

Joe used mirrors again when he photographed a pair of astronomers for National Geographic magazine. The telescope they used was a segmented mirror, and...well, you get the idea.

For a long time Joe thought about revisiting mirrors, only this time on a much larger scale. He got the chance this past March when business brought him to Las Vegas with the opportunity to piggyback a mirror shoot.

The concept: lots of mirrors, big ones, out in the desert, with dynamic performers reflected in them. "It's a fanciful setup, let's get fanciful folks to populate it," Joe says with irrefutable logic.

A set was built from Joe's sketches—first as a miniature, then as the full monty—by Sin City Scenic, a Las Vegas set design and construction outfit. Joe had originally wanted ten-foot square mirrors, but realized they'd be pretty much impossible to manage. He ended up with an assortment of 5x10 and 2x7 mirror panels for stand-up reflections and a ten-foot square mirrored surface as a floor. Photo gear included the D810 ("for its superior resolution"), an assortment of workhorse NIKKOR lenses, a heavy-duty Gitzo tripod and a powerful Profoto mobile light.    

"We met out in the desert about 8:00 in the morning," Joe says. "Sin City had the set built and ready for shooting by about 4:00 p.m. I did a couple of things that first day, but I knew I'd have all of the next day." At the end of the short shoot, the mirrors were wrapped and the gear stowed. A crewman spent the night in a Winnebago babysitting the set.    

A lot of things could have gone wrong, but none of them did.

"We lucked out," Joe says. "Sand and dust were a constant presence—we went through a lot of glass cleaner—but my biggest fear was the standup mirrors tipping over in the wind, even though we had giant barrels filled with water supporting them. But no strong wind came up."

He was also concerned about unwanted reflections and kept checking to see that no one from the crew, and no Winnebagos, cars, lights or other gear, was visible in the mirrors.

"It was an experiment that just kind of grew," Joe says of the project. "There's no real reason for these pictures to exist except that they're fun and cool to look at.

"And I've always loved the idea of creating something a little different."

To find out more about Joe's endlessly reflected images, click here to see his blog post on the project.

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