Wally McNamee, a prizewinning photographer for The Washington Post and then for Newsweek who covered presidents, soldiers in combat, Olympic athletes and ordinary men and women going about their daily lives, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was 84.
The cause was pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer, said a son, Bruce “Win” McNamee II, himself a news photographer.
McNamee covered 10 presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and the Olympic Games from 1976 to 1996. He was a Marine Corps photographer during the Korean War and later photographed combat operations during the Vietnam War.
Among his most memorable pictures was a photograph of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy disembarking from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Nov. 22, 1963, hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, is holding her hand, and she is still wearing the suit stained with the president’s blood spattered on her by the assassin’s bullets. McNamee later described it as “a graphic touch to this horrible moment.”
On the day of the president’s funeral, McNamee was posted atop the Lincoln Memorial, from which he photographed the Kennedy funeral cortège crossing Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery.
“It was a perfect geometric layout,” McNamee told Bertrand Guez and Julie Asher in a 2014 interview, describing the horse-drawn caisson bearing the president’s body, accompanied by military honor guards moving in a straight line across the bridge to what would be the president’s burial site and the eternal flame.
McNamee was on The Post’s photo staff from 1955 until he left for Newsweek in 1968. He retired there after 30 years but continued to work as a contractor through the early 2000s. He took more than 100 Newsweek cover photographs. Four times he won the White House News Photographers Association’s Photographer of the Year Award. He was one of only a handful of photographers who accompanied President Richard M. Nixon on his historic 1972 trip to China.
He was resourceful in getting himself to a vantage point or location where taking a good picture was possible. When the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, no photographers were allowed to accompany the military. So McNamee, another Newsweek photographer and a reporter paid a small-boat owner from a nearby island $10,000 to take them to the Caribbean island nation, where they waded ashore only to be greeted by a gruff U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who was less than welcoming.
Besides, the sergeant said, he had a grudge against Newsweek. He had been promised a small pocket calculator as a giveaway for subscribing to the magazine, but he never received it.
McNamee reached into a tote bag and pulled out a small pocket calculator of his own. “We’ve been looking all over the world for you, sergeant,” he said. “Here it is.”
He issued an epithet, then let the journalists through.
Wallace William McNamee was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on Nov. 29, 1932. His father was an insurance salesman. The family moved to Arlington, Virginia, when he was a child, and he graduated from Washington-Lee High School. He attended George Washington University and worked as a copy aide at The Post, then joined the Marine Corps, serving in Korea and Japan. He returned to The Post in 1955.
A longtime Arlington resident, Mr. McNamee moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, soon after he retired but returned to the Washington area for medical care.
His marriage to the former Janet Regan ended in divorce. His second wife, Nikki Johnson McNamee, died in 2013 after 39 years of marriage.
Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Bruce W. “Win” McNamee II of Arlington, Kimberly Mack of Falls Church, Virginia, and Julia McNamee of Trumbull, Connecticut; and six grandchildren.
In the Guez-Asher interview, McNamee spoke of his years as a White House photographer in the Kennedy administration. He would describe Kennedy as unusually “comfortable being photographed . . . even during unguarded moments with his family.”
This, McNamee said, “humanized him even more as a president . . . loved easily by people because he was so natural.”
On the weekend of Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, when it was all over, McNamee said, “I cried a little . . . for the first time.”