Michael O'Brien (photographer)

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Michael O'Brien
Self-portrait by Michael O'Brien.jpg
Born (1950-06-27)June 27, 1950
Memphis, Tennessee
Nationality American
Field Photographer
Website www.obrienphotography.com

Michael O'Brien (born June 27, 1950) is an American photographer noted for his portraiture and documentary photography. In a 40-year career, O'Brien has photographed subjects ranging from presidents to small-town heroes. He has completed two books: The Face of Texas: Portraits of Texans (2003) and Hard Ground (2011).[1]

Early life[edit]

Michael O'Brien was born on June 27, 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee.[citation needed] In high school, he set up a darkroom in his grandmother's basement with his friend Chris Bell and started photographing his close friends Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and Bell in a band called Big Star. O'Brien has stated that because he "lacked the musical talent" to join the band, he picked up a camera instead.[2]

O'Brien graduated from Memphis University School in 1968, after which he attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. At college, he became a photographer for the student paper, the Daily Beacon, earning four dollars for each published picture. That money, together with occasional freelance jobs, helped O'Brien put himself through school. A turning point came when O'Brien met Jack Corn, a staff photographer for the Nashville Tennessean, and saw his documentary photography series on the coal mining community in Appalachia.[3] By the time he graduated as a Philosophy major in 1972, O'Brien had amassed a substantial portfolio of black-and-white photographs.[2]

O'Brien is married to Elizabeth Owen O'Brien, former reporter with LIFE magazine.[citation needed]

Professional background[edit]

Documentary photography

In 1973, The Miami News hired O'Brien as staff photographer, covering everything from violent crime scenes, such as double homicides, to portraits for the paper's "Cook of the Month" feature.[2] In 1975, he developed a documentary feature about homelessness. After seeing a man camped out under an overpass, O'Brien stopped his car and met 57-year-old John Madden. The men developed a friendship, during which, with Madden's permission, O'Brien followed and photographed him for six months, where he documented Madden waiting in food lines, drinking with friends, sleeping in public spaces, and getting booked into jail. O'Brien's "vivid and empathic chronicle of homelessness" won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.[4]

In 1977, O'Brien won a second Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for "Culmer: The Tragic City", a photo essay of Miami's downtown ghetto.[5]

Magazine photography

In 1979, O'Brien moved to New York City and began his career as a freelance photographer. In 1980, LIFE magazine published his ten-page black-and-white photographic essay capturing the heroic efforts of Nurse Charlotte Sheehan at the Burn Center in New York Hospital.[6] The following year, LIFE featured O'Brien's photographs of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill at Northampton State Hospital for its story, "Emptying the Madhouse: The Mentally Ill Have Become Our Cities Lost Souls".[7] In 1985, LIFE sent O'Brien to Austin, Texas to photograph Willie Nelson. O'Brien returned to Texas in 1989 to shoot a cover story on Austin for National Geographic.[8] The results helped win National Geographic a National Magazine Award for photography in 1991.[9]

In 1988, O'Brien took on his first assignment for a major advertiser, photographing athletes in a Philadelphia locker room for Nike. He went on to work for such clients as Kodak, Apple Computer, VISA, Wrangler Jeans, and Bank of America.[citation needed] O'Brien stood out for using real people rather than models in costumes.[10] For Apple's "What's on Your Powerbook Campaign", O'Brien photographed incongruous pairings of people holding laptops, including Todd Rundgren and Jesuit priest Don Doll. The result earned a CLIO Award and was later named by Photo District News (PDN) one of the best ad campaigns of the last 25 years.[10] Writing of O'Brien's aesthetic development through this period, Catherine Calhoun observed in Photo District News that O'Brien's "editorial work evolved in such a way that, by 1988, when he shot a pull-out, 28-image portfolio of Australians for National Geographic, his photographs had become thoughtfully composed pictures that combined passion with a hint of wit. His edgy black-and-white grit had been replaced by a soft, warm overall light and deeply saturated colors."[11]

O'Brien is probably most acclaimed for his portraiture. "There's a simplicity in the way Michael has someone address the camera, and real purity to his light," comments D.J. Stout, Art Director of Texas Monthly[12] Notable subjects photographed by O'Brien include LeBron James, Steven Spielberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton, Philip Glass, Don DeLillo, Warren Buffett, Chris Evert, Troy Aikman, Larry McMurtry, Sissy Spacek, and George W. Bush. O'Brien's photographs have been published in magazines such as LIFE, Geo, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Fortune, Vanity Fair (magazine), Texas Monthly, and ESPN Magazine.[2]

Published works[edit]

The Face of Texas: Portraits of Texans[edit]

O'Brien was drawn to Texas and moved there in 1993. A decade later, he published his first collection of portraits, The Face of Texas: Portraits of Texans (Bright Sky Press, 2003). The book was a collaborative effort with former LIFE reporter Elizabeth Owen O'Brien (his spouse), who wrote brief, biographical stories to accompany each figure. The Face of Texas features nationally known figures such as Willie Nelson and George W. Bush side by side with lesser-known Texans like Shannon Perry, the 1989 Gatorfest Queen of Anahuac.[13]

Hard Ground[edit]

O'Brien's second book, Hard Ground, is a collection of black-and-white portraits of homeless individuals, accompanied by poetry from singer-songwriter and co-author Tom Waits.[14] O'Brien was the photographer for the cover of Waits' 2009 album, Glitter and Doom Live.[15] The project began in 2006, when O'Brien began photographing homeless people using the services of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a street ministry based in Austin, Texas. From there, O'Brien went on to take hundreds of photographs of people living on the streets of Austin.[14] To achieve the intimate effect he wanted, O'Brien used an old view camera and Polaroid "Type 55" black-and-white film.[16] Reviewer John Loengard commented,

We meet O'Brien's people one on one. Their 'otherness' is removed. The photographs engender compassion and empathy. If that sounds simple, it is because it is simple. And, as anyone knows, being simple is very, very difficult. Hard Ground is a rare and powerful book.[17]


Michael O'Brien's photo prints are in the permanent collections of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Birmingham Museum of Art, International Center of Photography in New York City, The Tennessee State Museum, and the Wittliff collections of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Texas State University. Between 2009-2011, the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. acquired 18 of O'Brien's portraits including Warren Buffett, Willie Nelson, Larry McMurtry, Howard Finster, Don DeLillo, and Rob Reiner.



  1. ^ "Hard Ground - hard truths from Michael O'Brien and Tom Waits - No Depression Americana and Roots Music". Nodepression.com. 2011-04-04. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Michael O'Brien (9) Discography at Discogs". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  3. ^ "Photojournalist Jack Corn Exposes the Power of the Human Spirit in a Way That Words Cannot". We Are YEP. 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  4. ^ "New Work: ‘Hard Ground’ by Michael O’Brien, Poems by Tom Waits | New at Pentagram". New.pentagram.com. 2011-01-26. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  5. ^ "News' O'Brien Wins Kennedy Photo Award", The Miami News (March 21, 1978). Accessed May 21, 2013.
  6. ^ Jane Condon, reporter, and Michael O'Brien, photographer, "Caring for the Burned" (1981), 114-122.
  7. ^ "Emptying the Madhouse: The Mentally Ill Have Become Our Cities Lost Souls", LIFE Magazine (May 1981), 56-64.
  8. ^ Elizabeth A. Noize, "Austin: Deep in the Heart of Texas." National Geographic (June 1990).
  9. ^ Charles Trueheart, "Top Awards To D.C.-Based Magazines; Editors Honor U.S. News, New Republic, Geographic" The Washington Post STYLE; PAGE C1 (April 24, 1991).
  10. ^ a b Daniel S. Levine, "Creative All-Stars" Adweek June 14, 1993. May 19, 2013
  11. ^ Catherine Calhoun, "A Nice Guy Finishes First" Photo District News, November 1995. 46-49
  12. ^ Catherine Calhoun, "A Nice Guy Finishes First" Photo District News, November 1995.
  13. ^ "Summer Reading 2003: Summer Reading 2003: Coffeetable books for the screened-in porch. - Books". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  14. ^ a b Adam Newey. "Hard Ground, poems by Tom Waits, photographs by Michael O'Brien - review | Books". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  15. ^ "Musician Tom Waits and Photographer Michael O'Brien Team Up On Book To Help Homeless | Samaritanmag.com - The Anti-Tabloid". Samaritanmag.com. 2011-01-14. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  16. ^ Darden Smith. "Bouncing Off The Brick Wall". Retrieved 2014-04-05. 
  17. ^ "Michael O'Brien Hard Ground". Le Journal de la Photographie. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 

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