Don't expect to see Michael O'Brien shooting portraits in his studio anytime soon. That just isn't his style. Whether he's creating portraiture in the middle of a farm, in an historic mansion, or on Main Street, U.S.A., O'Brien captures people being themselves in their natural environments.
With a prestigious clientele topped by ESPN The Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Texas Monthly, Nike, Apple, Visa, Wrangler Jeans, and the Bank of America, you'd think Austin, Texas--based O'Brien might have a photo formula up his sleeve. Not the case. Rather, he says, the key is "getting his subjects comfortable with the camera and helping them block out anything extraneous, so they can be in the moment with the photograph. I try to let my pictures speak for themselves. I love photographing people in a way that is real and believable without any artifice."
Finding the Perfect Cornfield
His flair for capturing his subjects in their environs is evident in the images appearing in this story. Take our spread of the Quad City River Bandits minor league baseball team (left). He photographed the team in a cornfield just outside of Davenport, Iowa. The photo ran on ESPN The Magazine's cover for a story titled "Farm Life: From Cornfields to Concrete Jungles, the Minor Leagues Cover America."
"I scouted and found the perfect cornfield," recalls O達rien. "We had an overcast sky the first day, but the players were willing to come out on a second day. The sky and clouds cooperated and I made the shot. I love the surreal quality--the dreamlike feel that comes across."
O'Brien's image of George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, presented challenges of another sort. Taken at the Texas governor's mansion, the image appeared on the cover of Fortune.
"The one day that Gov. Bush was available to do the picture, I wasn't" he recalls. "However, Fortune was able to convince the governor's staff to reschedule by telling them a 'famous photographer' was going to do the picture. When I met Bush, he looked me up and down and said: 'You don't look like a famous photographer!' He liked the shot so much he chose it for the cover of his autobiography, A Charge to Keep."
The photograph of Cleveland Cavalier forward LeBron James was a cover image of ESPN The Magazine in 2002. "We had LeBron for about an hour before an early--morning basketball practice at his high school in Cleveland," O'Brien says. "LeBron was in the 12th grade and about to go pro. He came into the shoot wearing a white T--shirt wrapped around his head. I shot him with my Hasselblad 553 ELX and Elinchrom Octalight against a 20x30 brown muslin backdrop. I was impressed by how calm, collected, and centered he was with all the attention focused on him."
"Calm and collected" also describes the timeless Willie Nelson, whose portrait appeared in National Geographic in June 1990.
"Willie is one of the kindest and gentlest people I've ever photographed," says O'Brien. "The picture ended up running as a postage--stamp size in the magazine, and became the cover of my book, The Face of Texas."
Published by Bright Sky Press in 2003, his book features 80 color and B&W portraits, and are accompanied by the writing of O'Brien's wife, Elizabeth, a former newspaper and Life magazine reporter.
"Even before I moved to Texas in '93, I was in love with the state and working on stories for Texas Monthly and National Geographic in Texas. To me, it didn't look or feel like the rest of the country. There was a distinctive presence in the people and the land, and I enjoyed celebrating it with my camera."
In addition to images of everyday people like Ran Horn, the "Van Gogh" of Van Horn, Texas; and Shannon Perry, the "Gatorfest Queen" of Anahuac; the book features celebrities such as country singer Kelly Willis and Destiny痴 Child.
Regarding the Destiny's Child shoot, O'Brien recalls, "The girls were wonderfully cooperative, standing perfectly still, while I framed and focused."
Passion for Photography
O'Brien, whose "photographic life is film" uses his Hasselblad 553 ELX and 500 CM cameras with Kodak E--100GX for most of his portraits, including those showcased in this article. Depending on the project, he shoots in Kodak B&W and color, with his Hasselblad, Canon EOS--1, EOS--3, or 4x5 Toyo--Field view camera with Polaroid Type 55. When necessary, he'll shoot with his Canon EOS 20D.