Michael O’Brien

Michael O'Brien

Born on 27th June 1950, Michael O’Brien is a well-known American documentary and portrait photographer. Over the forty years of his career, O’Brien has taken photographs of an array of subjects from heroes of small town to presidents of nations.

He had interest in photography since high school when he established a darkroom in the basement of his grandmother’s house with Chris Bell, his friend. O’Brien began his photography journey by taking pictures of his friends, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton.

He graduated in 1968 from Memphis University School and later on studied at University of Tennessee. While he was in college, he took up the post of a photographer for the student newspaper, Daily Beacon. For each image that got published, he earned four bucks. This money and his earning from freelance work helped this young ambitious man pay for his school.

In 1972, Michael O’Brien graduated with a philosophy degree and had compiled a portfolio of substantial monochrome photographs. A year later, he was hired by The Miami News as a staff photographer. In 1975, he made a documentary on homelessness after seeing a man living poorly beneath an overpass. O’Brien took his pictures for six whole months and documented every aspect of his life. This empathic and vivid chronicle of a homeless person got O’Brien a Robert F. Kennedy  Journalism Award. In 1977, he won another one of these awards for producing Culmer: The Tragic City.

In 1979, he shifted to New York and started freelance photography. In 1980, a ten page photo essay with black and white pictures was published in Life magazine. A year later, another set of photos by O’Brien were published in the same magazine that portrayed mentally ill people at Northampton State Hospital. The title of the story was Emptying the Madhouse: The Mentally Ill Have Become Our Cities Lost Souls. In 1985, Michael O’Brien was sent to Texas by Life magazine to take photos of Willie Nelson. Then again in 1989, he went to Texas for National Geographic’s cover story on Austin. The results were so successful that it helped National Geographic win the National Magazine Award  for photography in 1991.

O’Brien did his major assignment for Nike in 1988. He then continued to work for Apple, Wrangler Jeans, VISA, Bank of America, and Kodak. He did an award-winning campaign for Apple company, called What’s on Your Powerbook. This campaign won him CLIO Award and the Photo District News labeled it as one of the greatest campaigns in the last twenty-five years.

O’Brien is highly praised for his portrait photography. Well-known subjects whose portraits he made, include Steven Spielberg, Al Sharpton, Don DeLillo, Christ Evert, Sissy Spacek, Larry McMurty, Philip Glass, Bill Cosby, Samuel L. Jackson, and LeBron James.

Other than Life magazine, his photographs have been featured in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, ESPN Monthly, Fortune, Esquire, Geo, and Texas Monthly.

His photographic prints are in the enduring collection of New York’s International Center of Photography, Austin’s University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Texas State University’s Wittliff collections, and Tennessee State Museum. Also, the National Portrait Gallery belonging to Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution also acquired eighteen portraits by O’Brien.


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