Artist “par excellence” Michael James O’Brien is an accomplished American photographer and poet who has exceeded in the field by being showcased in the greatest publications around such as Rolling Stone, L’Uomo Vogue, the New York Times, the Financial Times and many more. Today, Michael gives us the pleasure of answering some of our questions here in The GROUND Magazine.
Hello Michael, it is an honor to meet you.
When did this passion for the arts emerge in your life?
I always knew I would be an artist, but I thought first a painter, then an actor.
What was your first introduction to photography? Which camera did you use?
I was in graduate school at Yale in graphic design. I was thinking of leaving after the first year and going to St. Martins [College of Art & Design] in London when I took a seminar from Walker Evans and bought a Pentax 6×7. That seminar changed my life.
When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of photography?
In the early ’70s when I was still studying literature without any plan for the future, I was stunned by seeing the photographs of Brassai at MoMA. For the first time, I saw what photography could do. That was the turning point. Years later, I was working in Paris [the summer of 1984] when Brassai died in the South of France, and the headline in Liberation said, “The eyes of Brassai are closed forever.” I still have the newspaper.
Were you an ambitious person? Did you already know when you were a teenager that you would be someone powerful in photography realm?
When I was a teenager, I never thought about the future. I was not ambitious at all. Sometimes I wish I had been more so. But I have no regrets.
What remains today the most unforgettable photo shoot you have ever done?
I think working on Cremaster 5 with Matthew Barney in Budapest [in 1996]. We worked mostly all night in some of the city’s great monuments, and Ursula Andress was the lead character.
You have had the chance to work with some of the most amazing subjects a photographer could ever dream of, what is your relationship with those subjects on set?
As you know, it’s hard to describe the rapport you have with your subjects. It’s like any other relationship: the attraction, the ups, the downs, and for me it has almost always ended well. I am really interested in other people and who they are. I don’t try to make people look “better.”
What is the source of your inspiration?
Paintings, film, music, nightlife, my friends.
You have studied and taught photography in the most prestigious schools in the field. What are your thoughts on the relationship between art photography and academia?
It’s a tough relationship. For many, school is probably not the right training. If you have a great experience it changes your life, but I think it might be easy to burn out if you study or teach for too many years. I learned a lot and I can say I gave a lot, too.
You seem to be a very complete photographer, with work commissioned by publications such as The Financial Times, Rolling Stone, L’Uomo Vogue and brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Polo Ralph Lauren. Can you comment on the diversity of the work you do?
I have done portraits, still life, interiors, fashion, landscapes, etc. I am interested in everything that involves what my teacher, Walker Evans, called “the hand of man,” and that is a very broad area. Sometimes I think it would have been easier if I narrowed my scope. I had a solo show in Paris with Marion de Beaupre in 2005, and many viewers thought it was a group show.
In 1993, you collaborated with artist Matthew Barney. Has it been hard to share a vision and a style with another artist to produce a common result?
The project with Matthew worked very well because there was a clear understanding and even a parallel view. Matthew and I had overlapping backgrounds and shared inspirations. The working relationship developed from that. It was a 10-year project. Many marriages don’t last that long! When it was time to stop, I needed to dig down and find my solo vision again.
You have been involved in poetry and the restaurant business as well; are they hobbies of yours or actual career paths you have envisioned yourself taking?
I don’t have any hobbies. I do everything as an occupation. I have been writing since I was 15 and I write all the time — in bars and on trains. I think it adds up to about one poem a year that I am happy with. It really flourished in the ’90s when I read late at night in clubs like Jackie 60 in New York and the Groucho in London and edited Verbal Abuse [the poetry fanzine] with Chi Chi Valenti. The restaurant Chez EsSaada [1996-2004] was an inspired and happy collaboration with friends in the right place at the right time — and a lot of hard work! I would do it again!