Michael James O’Brien

Text JF. Pierets    Photos Michael James O’Brien

 

When talking to some friends in Antwerp, the name Michael James O’Brien was often mentioned. One couple bought a series of his pictures, another met him in a bar in Antwerp. When searching his name online, one can only produce a shriek of recognition. That picture of fetish legend/corsetiere Mr. Pearl! Dame Edna covered in pink feathers! Our über idol Matthew Barney! Iconic pictures that we’ve known for years turned out to be by the hand of 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. Michael James O’Brien. We managed to get his email address and were able to intercept him on his way to Istanbul. 

 

When did you knew you wanted to be a photographer and why?
I was seduced by Walker Evans (and his groundbreaking work) when I took his graduate seminar at Yale in the early 70’s. I bought a Pentax 6x7 & changed my degree from literature to photography.

You come from Ohio and travel the world, yet you are often in Antwerp.
I taught in Ohio for 2 years only but was born in NYC & lived there after Yale until I moved with my partner to Paris in 2004. Now we move around constantly.

Among other things you owned a restaurant, your work has been commissioned by a long list of magazines and you are a published poet. Do you need to do all those things in order to feel fulfilled or are you easily bored?
I like to be busy and do big projects. Writing & photography & owning a bar are all inspiring & satisfying in different ways.

You photograph celebrities as well as dragqueens and performers. You like to be divers in your subjects?
I am attracted to a wide variety of subjects like most photographers. I don’t have one subject matter or a set style.

What’s your most treasured anecdote? 
What comes immediately to mind is a walk with Ursula Andress through the Opera House in Budapest in 1996 preparing shots for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster5 when Ursula began to tell me about her “great loves”. You’ll have to imagine the rest…

You worked with Matthew Barney. How did that happen?
I worked with Matthew when he was a model while he was still in college in the late 80’s. When he began his art exhibitions in NY we often met in what were once called “underground” venues, like the fetish club Jackie 60 & Matthew asked me to collaborate on Drawing Restraint 7.

The people on your pictures often look fragile. Is that something you are looking for? 
I am trying to give room & time when I do portraits for the subject to find their resting place. It becomes more difficult these days with instant photography to make the time.

 

 

‘I am deeply interested in what is called the gender diaspora, in all it’s manifestations & I believe we all have the power to become what we want to be in spite of the “givens” of birth, race etc..’

When did you decide to make ‘Girlfriend: men, women and drag’?
I proposed the project to Random House in 1990 at the height of the Golden Age of NYC downtown nightlife which was often dominated by drag performers.

You seem intrigued by transformation. Why is that?
I am deeply interested in what is called the gender diaspora, in all it’s manifestations & I believe we all have the power to become what we want to be in spite of the “givens” of birth, race etc.

I read you have a fascination for freedom versus restriction. Is that a personal thing? 
It’s equally personal, political & aesthetic but those are inseparable for me.

You do a lot on the subject of AIDS. Why? 
I was in NYC when the epidemic hit like a tsunami. Loss was an essential part of our lives as in a war and the only response was awareness, involvement.

What’s next on your agenda?
Exhibitions in Istanbul in June & in October and preparation for shows in London & Liverpool, as well as commissioned work. And open a bar!

What’s the most important thing on your wishlist? 
To work with less pressure; to re-edit my archive!

 

www.michaeljamesobrien.com

 

Related articles

Faryda Moumouh

Since I was young I was already drawing, watching, registering details from the things I saw. It was an urge and I had the feeling I was chosen by a visual language, which I pursued. I went to art school when I was 14 and it made me discover…..

read more

Bubi Canal

Surrealism meets objet trouvé, meets performance art and photography. The art of Bubi Canal includes many disciplines, yet its common thread is the ability to make you happy. His work is positive, colorful and carries you along into this magical…..

read more

Tareq Sayid de Montfort

Like all the monotheistic religions, at its birth, Islam was an avant-garde movement, in this instance of medieval Arabia. During its Golden Age, the Islamic world was avant-garde in comparison to Europe and also in the arts during the brief…..

read more

Silvia B.

She affectionately calls them ‘my boys’, when she talks about her statues. A black and a white series of puppets that almost seem to come alive and that are created with a level of perfection that can only be understood as love. Some of them, with names…..

read more

Peter Popart

Wham!, Boom! and Pow! Pop art is alive and happening and living in Rotterdam. Living amongst posters of Divine, plastic flowers and with a soft spot for John Waters. We talk to painter Peter Popart Radder in his gorgeous house filled with…..

read more

Lukas Beyeler

We’ve met Lukas Beyeler on Facebook and were instantly touched by both his pictures as his intriguing video work. Lukas is working, amongst others, for Bernard Willhelm and Bruce Labruce and is photographing both famous faces like Pharrell…..

read more

Anto Christ

Her calling card in life is to explore and to experiment with different mediums in order to create something new. Creating is her obsession and passion and she refuses to put herself in a bubble by sticking to one thing only. Next to being a designer…..

read more

Little People

UK based artist Slinkachu is abandoning little people on the streets since 2006. Come again? “My ‘Little People Project’ started in 2006. It involves the remodelling and painting of miniature model train set characters, which I then place…..

read more

 

 

 

Et Alors? magazine. A global celebration of diversity.