Friday, November 4, 2011

The Memphis Daily News :: Hard Ground

Hard Ground
Photographs by Michael O’Brien
Poems by Tom Waits
O’Brien’s Lens is ‘Passport to the World’
By Andy Meek

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.”

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

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.

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