Wendy Goodman on Michael James O’Brien
“I can’t remember exactly what the occasion was when I first met Michael James O’Brien over thirty years ago, but I was struck by our instant chemistry, the recognition of a soul mate. I can’t write about Michael’s photography without describing him as a friend who first captivated me with his sense of humor, intelligence, and the breadth of his interests and knowledge, all of which inform his work as a photographer, and more recently, as a teacher.
The first time I went to his loft apartment, all those many decades ago, I was mesmerized by his desk. He had fashioned a very long table into his workspace, plied with arrangements of notebooks of all sizes, various pencils and pens, postcards, shells, rocks, and ephemera collected over time. He always had a vase of one lone tulip wending its way into the light. I kept track of that table and how it changed over time with each visit. I asked Michael if he would take photographs of the still life scenarios he created on that table because remember, it wasn’t like today where everyone has an iPhone attached to their hand, there were no cell phones back then, and no internet for that matter. Cameras were in the hands, for the most part, of the professionals who knew how to use them. I wanted to somehow memorize what he had done so I could create my own personal order at home.
I was so obsessed with the tulip series, all taken with polaroid film, that one day Michael gave me two sheets of cardboard, the cardboard you’d find in your laundered shirts when you send them out for washing and pressing. He had taped down the tulip Polaroid’s on those cardboard sheets, and I thought, of course, he would do the chicest thing. They are framed in my house just like that.
Michael and I worked together when I was the Fashion Editor at New York magazine back in the late ’80s, and those stories are some of the very best work I have ever done and more fun to produce than can be described. I will never forget us sitting in a van waiting for our next model to arrive. She had just come from Europe, and this was her first job. The door of the van flew open, and before us stood an apparition, an impossibly beautiful young girl named Naomi Campbell who transfixed us the energy of a colt and the mystical quality of stardom.
My affection for Michael’s still life work is high on my list of favorites, but then his portraits also startle me no matter how many times I have seen them. One, in particular, Mr. Pearl, 1994, is one of my favorites. It is as formal and timeless as a Renaissance painting of a feudal lord. Another photograph that never stops haunting me in the best way is the portrait of ballet dancer Tina Lee, 2001, captured in the midst of a pirouette. She is staring at us staring at her, unstoppable, except in the split-second, Michael captured the soul of her in her art. The combination of the frothy colors of her pink skirt and saffron yellow wrap, and only one toe shoe on point, visible, arrest the viewer for all time.
Then there is the Girl Friend series that Michael did for a book with writer Holly Brubach. One in particular: Lavinia, 1992, expresses the joy and freedom that can only be gained by being unapologetically yourself. If you take away nothing else but that from Michael’s canon of photographs, you’ll already be gaining a peek into the best part of life.”
Cross Currents is a recurring series that shares the insightful perspectives of influential individuals on fine art photography.
The series creates a dialogue that emphasizes and expresses the power of art.
We use the concept of “Cross Currents” to illustrate how a significant master in one art or practice can influence a different expression form. For the series, Holden Luntz Gallery connects with gifted individuals outside the discipline of photography and asks them to share their thoughts on a photographer or a body of work and how it has impacted them.