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VOL. 126 | NO. 216 | Friday, November 4, 2011

O’Brien’s Lens is ‘Passport to the World’

By Andy Meek

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Michael O’Brien regards his camera as more than just the tool of his profession. O’Brien, a former Memphian who now lives in Austin, Texas, considers it his “passport to the world.”

Michael O’Brien, who was born in Memphis in 1950, recently published a book about the homeless called, “Hard Ground,” co-authored with singer-songwriter Tom Waits.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Most recently, he’s let that passport carry him to the homeless and disadvantaged people who eke out their lives on the forgotten corners and mean streets of America – the outcasts who live on, as his most recent photo collection is titled, “Hard Ground.”

At press time, “Hard Ground” – published earlier this year by the University of Texas Press and which is now in a second printing – was still one of top 10 best books of 2011 so far, as chosen by the editors of Amazon.com.

For the book, O’Brien’s often haunting images are married alongside the poetry of singer-songwriter Tom Waits. The photos of O’Brien’s subjects are mostly close-up and in black-and-white.

In press material for “Hard Ground,” photographer John Loengard – whom American Photo magazine has called one of the “100 most influential people in photography” – called the collection a “rare and powerful book.”

The product is familiar territory for O’Brien. He began his career as a staff photographer for the Miami News, and his photo essays depicting the homeless have won him two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards.

He’s 61 today, and he’s spent more than half his life – a period of some four decades – as a photographer. Recently, the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian, acquired several of his photos.

“I feel that I was really fortunate to get out of college and get a job at a newspaper where I could make a living with a camera,” he said. “Not because so much of the photographic process or the artistry, but instead because of the life it exposed me to. All the places I got to go. All the people I got to meet.

“It’s an amazing way to make a living.”

O’Brien has worked as a freelance photographer for publications like National Geographic, Life magazine, Esquire, ESPN The Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Magazine and Texas Monthly. In addition to the National Portrait Gallery, some of his work also is housed in the International Center for Photography in New York, as well as other museums.

In 2003, he published “The Face of Texas,” a collection of portraits depicting people related in various ways to the state.

“For a photo to work, I have to make a connection to the person and get their focus and attention into the camera,” O’Brien said. “So it is a relationship. The photographer sits on one side. The subject sits on the other. And you’re trying to document and organize the information in a rectangle that makes it interesting and compelling about the person and the place.

“And it’s given me just an incredible opportunity to meet and see people that in other professions you’d never be exposed to.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 20 39 190
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 17 135 753
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0