McBride rose to fame in the 1950s and 60s as a pre-eminent documentary photographer. His photo essays appeared regularly in various German magazines, and that work has established itself as a chronicle of the Kennedy and Adenauer years. He has always been a controversial artist. The 1975 sex education book Show Me, for which he was photographer, was initially received positively in Europe and North America by educators. However, due to strict laws enacted in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, it was withdrawn from publication there, and is now considered child pornography.
Solo exhibitions since 2000 have included: the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Bologna; Dany Keller Galerie, Munich; and the Galerie argus fotokunst, Berlin. In 2004 McBride received the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize, which is bestowed by the German Photographic Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie) and is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for photography.
In his autobiographical photo-essay book entitled I, Will McBride, he wrote:
- "I am very interested in boys. Let there be no doubt about that.
- But I don't meet them in train stations, nor in the men's lavatories. I don't go to places where I think there will be boys to see.
- I don't ask boys to come home with me for pay. But when I see a good-looking boy, or what I think is a good-looking boy; slim, with well-defined bones and muscles, an intelligent face with clear eyes and a full mouth, high cheekbones, a not too large nose, a flat somach, a full butt and long legs, big feet and big hands, then I am charged with a lot of excitement.
- It is this excitement that makes me work. I don't make love to boys, I make pictures and sculptures of them, a different way of loving...
- But to my complete amazement, I discover that not all people admire my sculpture. In fact, many people are disturbed by it, not because my boys are not beautiful, but because they have a strong sexual component. My boys have sex-appeal and this is especially disturbing to a lot of people...
- My sculpture is made not only to show that boys are beautiful and that they should be protected and respected as such, but to show that they are also sexual creatures, bursting with power...
- I do not do pornography (I don't think). But some people think so, and have called the photographs that I have made to inform and educate obscene. In the United States, my books have been banned. Now that I have turned to sculpture, have I been making sculptures that will be banned too? I'll wait and see."
- Adenauer (Berlin: Josef Keller, 1965)
- The Sex Book: A Modern Pictorial Encyclopaedia (London: Herder & Herder, 1971)
- Show Me (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975)
- Foto-Tagebuch (Berlin: Frolich & Kaufmann, 1982)
- Siddhartha (Kehl on Rhine: Swan Verlag, 1982)
- Boys (Munich: Bucher, 1988)
- Zeig mal mehr! (Weinheim: Beltz, 1988), with text by Frank Herrath and Uwe Sieler.
- Situationen/Projekten/Ein Fotobuch (Aachen: Rimbaud, 1992)
- Will McBride (Frankfurt/Main: Editions Stemmle, 1992)
- My Sixties (Cologne: Taschen, 1994)
- I, Will McBride (Cologne: Könemann, 1997)
- Coming of Age (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1999), with an introductory essay, "Ways of Being Human," by Guy Davenport.
- Mein Italien (Munich: Knesebech Verlag, 2003)
As Joseph Geraci notes, McBride's work "has the gritty, involved quality of 50s photographers such as Klein and van der Elsken. Their aesthetic was to break down the barrier between subject and artist, for the artist to become 'engaged' as was being argued by Sartre and the French Existentialists."