Much like fashion, photography is a temporal art form, skilled in capturing the spirit of its time as it freezes the present into a durable image. A photograph is important because it gives representation to things, people, and moments that would otherwise be forgotten my mainstream history—and this spirit pervades in the seductive work of American photographer Michael James O’Brien, who is currently subject to a new retrospective exhibition in Savannah, Georgia. A student of master photographer Walker Evans, O’Brien came of age in 80s New York, when the American metropolis was still gritty and heavily populated by a colorful cast of hustlers, downtown superstars, drag queens, and artists. Mixing art and life, O’Brien captured these characters in their element, as in his Girlfriend series, which documents drag queens with a regal sincerity against a simple grey backdrop (including iconic Paris is Burning character Dorian Corey). The young photographer would go on to work with magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Interview, while producing campaigns for the likes of Polo Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Thierry Mugler, and Bergdorf Goodman. From head-shots of a fresh-faced Jude Law, to intimate portraits of Andy Warhol and Amanda Lepore, O’Brien’s work is a document of a life lived in the midst of art, glamor, and human affect. Mid-career, he left New York and the fashion industry more broadly to devote himself to the refining his practice of portraiture and still-life. This later body of work illuminates the delicacy and classicism of his earliest photographs, skillfully curated by Ben Tollefson, assistant curator of SCAD Museum. A must-see for those who find that fashion photography shows its strongest side when it dares to break out of the confines of the industry.
Images courtesy of Michael James O’Brien