Michael O’Brien – Hard Ground

Copyright Michael O’Brien 2011 courtesy of University of Texas Press

Over a period from 2006 until 209, Michael O’Brien embarked on a different journey for a photographic project, picking up from an earlier self-assignment that harkened back to 1978 soon after starting his photojournalism career. Over this three years on Tuesday evenings, he photographed the faces of the homeless at the Mission Possible Community Center located  East Austin Texas.

O’Brien states “I was again finding my place with the disenfranchised, using the camera to document, and relate. The more I photographed, the more I felt the need to connect with the human beings before my camera. These gentle, worn and vulnerable souls sat quietly across from me and looked directly into the lens. Whatever energy was going out was coming back in kind. These urban wanders were giving me a reason and purpose for my work

The process of photographing his subjects with a combination of a view camera and Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film, a black and white photographic medium, creates many possibilities for O’Brien. Using a view camera is a slow and deliberate process and provides opportunities to initiate a dialog with his subjects. The positive/negative film provides immediacy in the feedback of the photographic process to both the photographer and more importantly, to his subjects. The positive layer creates a delicate black and white print that O’Brien provides to his subjects, holding back the negative layer for subsequent printing. O’Brien’s portrait project finally came to a conclusion when the Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film he was using ceased to be available.

O’Brien subjects are photographed in front of neutral mid-gray seamless background, temporarily suspended from their current conditions. Unlike his photojournalism photographs, we do not see his subject’s surrounding environment, unless his subject desires to introduce these elements; Bobby and William in their wheelchairs, Ronnie and Robert standing with might be the entirety of their worldly possessions. The consistency of this gray background also symbolizes that all of his subjects are now in a similar place, regardless of their journey on the road that brought them to this place. O’Brien also appears to flex his portrait framing in collaboration with his subjects, varying from a very tight facial framing, to a middle viewpoint that allows inclusion of couples with their children and occasional a full standing portrait to reveal his subject in their entirety.

His lighting provides a mix of soft highlights balanced with open and revealing shadows, in conjunction with a medium contrast range with the shadows falling away into a mysterious darkness. I sense this lighting is symbolic of his subject’s lives on the street, open but not concealing everything, warily holding back a little while continuing to assess each situation. To read their stories, many of his subjects have suffered too many ill consequences while homeless to entirely let their guard down.

O’Brien also chooses a photographic methodology that creates a narrow slice of sharpness, focusing on their eyes, the allegoric pathway to their souls, allowing the remaining details of the person to fall softly away. He allows his subjects to determine how they wish to be seen, many looking into the lens with a prolonged gaze. By focusing on the subjects eyes in combination with the catch light from his lighting creates portraits that are riveting, perhaps similar to Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders and Marco Delogu’s The Thirty Assassins.

There are also present on the edges of the photograph images the latent marks that are indicative of the Type 55 P/N film. These marks create a consistent framing mechanism, allowing the photographs to be frequently printed full bleed in the book, while allowing the principal portrait content to remain within the pages. Another subliminal message from using this framing technique is to inform the reader that you now see exactly what he witnessed. These uncropped documents are a direct capture and a testimony to his creative pre-visualization. Regardless of aesthetics’, I find the use of this framing technique to create a subtle rawness that is complementary and in this case, it works.

 In viewing these portraits, I really have difficulty understanding where they are coming from and I do not know where they are going next. They stand before his lens as a mute witness to the fact that they have survived to this moment in time. These are beautiful photographs of people who for whatever reason have now found themselves homeless or otherwise in need.

In conclusion, O’Brien states; “I felt a kinship with the people I was photographing. True, I have a home, a wife and three children. I wasn’t close to living on the street. But I was uprooted by the (photojournalism) industry’s changes; I, too, was unsettled, floundering, often unemployed, trying to find a way to regain my balance and place. This project, and these subjects, gave me back my anchor.”

The hardcover book is accompanied by a dust cover, printed and bound in China. The introduction is provided by O’Brien and the project is complemented by the poetry of Tom Waits. In the Notes contained in the Afterword, many of the subjects provide a voice to their current situation, mostly unimagined while viewing their portraits.

by Douglas Stockdale

One thought on “Michael O’Brien – Hard Ground

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  1. What is the difference between this book and Signs? Are the people in the photos being compensated?

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