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!




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