My afternoon with Michael O'Brien.

Shot with a real camera.  Not my phone.

Michael O'Brien is a quite a legend in photography circles.  He rose up from shooting newspaper journalism to become one of the "go to" photographers for advertising agencies throughout the 1980's and 1990's.  He shot the original "What's On Your Powerbook?" ads for Apple Computer.  Beautiful people in beautiful landscapes for Bank of America and so many more solid campaigns.  At the same time he's been a regular contributor for magazines from Texas Monthly to National Geographic. Now he's producing art books. But besides being known for shooting for the best in the business O'Brien is universally known (from worldly clients to the greenest assistant) as being an incredibly nice guy.

This Summer he's teaching an intro to photography course in the School of Photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin.  A few weeks ago he called me and asked if I would come and speak to his students about my career in photography and where the passion and business is taking me now.  I was flattered and thrilled.  Ecstatic, really, when I found out he'd also be buying me lunch....

I threw together two fun books of images and waited for Michael to drop by the house and pick me up.  We headed over to an old Austin favorite, Maudie's, for a quick bite.  We talked about the usual photographer stuff:  The current state of the business.  Whether it would ever recover.  Would it come back in a new form.  (Answers: bad.  yes. who knows?)

Then we headed off to UT to rendezvous with the students. Small class with great kids.  An Architecture student, a sprinkling of  PR and Journalism and Advertising majors.  A pre-Med student and a neuro-biologist.  Michael started the class off by showing the evolution of the cover design for his book, Hard Ground.  Amazingly, superstar designer, D.J. Stout did over 100 permutations of the cover design before he was satisfied.

Then Michael turned the floor over to me and I tried my best to entertain, inform and keep from embarrassing myself.  The class and Michael were kind and told me they enjoyed the presentation.  Michael drove me back to the house and we talked about the one subject that was a leitmotif for the day:  The idea that you can no longer make a living being a traditional photographer.  That going forward you'll need to do more for your clients.  He cited my progression as an example.  I've moved from just taking photographs to writing ads, writing books, writing scripts, making videos and adding marketing services to projects.  We both agreed that people needed to strengthen their secondary skills to really make it now.  Amazing to hear it from one of the giants of the industry.

Talking to students is a blast but it always shows me my weak points.  I'm bad at editing my portfolio.  It's just an assemblage of images that I like, tossed together with little rhyme or reason.  I love telling stories but I need to check in with my audience and not talk about technical stuff they haven't learned yet.  Hanging out with Michael makes me feel like a temporary guest member of an elite and private group.  But when he drives away my membership expires and I have to go back to my day to day existence as just another corporate photographer making my way through the fog.

Random fact:  Michael O'Brien was a philosophy major in college.


atmtx said...

Wow those UT kids are so lucky to have 2 great teachers. Where do I sign up?

Matt S said...

http://www.macmothership.com/gallery/newads5/WhatsOnYourPowerBook1.jpg !

Mindless said...

I agree with the part that we need to strengthen our secondary skills and it is more true for those who don't reach that hight (yet) as both of you already did. :)

Skip Hunt said...

I bet you did a smashing job. I'd have enjoyed that myself.