Noted photographer Michael O’Brien has collected a lifetime of Lone Star portraits that convey the spirit of their larger-than-life state.
Renowned portrait photographer Michael O’Brien wants you to judge his book by its cover.
After all, the shot gracing the front of the new, revised edition of The Face of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2014) features none other than legendary music man Willie Nelson. It’s a stunning, one-of-a-kind profile captured in black-and-white, and it reunited the photographer with the subject who inspired his love affair with Texas in the first place.
The story goes: Fourteen years before O’Brien snapped the book’s cover shot of Nelson, the two men met in 1985 on another shoot at the artist’s Spicewood ranch. Nelson was in the middle of filming theRed Headed Stranger movie. O’Brien and writer Cheryl McCall were doing a piece on him for Life.
“Since Willie adored Cheryl, we had unbelievable access,” O’Brien says during a recent phone chat from his home in Austin, Texas. “Willie’s great because he doesn’t give you 15 minutes and then it’s over — he wants to spend the time it takes to get it done. I just fell in love with the whole vibe of Willie in Texas.”
At the time, O’Brien was living in the hustle and bustle of New York City, but as other assignments brought him back to Texas through the years, the state’s allure as a home base grew stronger.
“I got an assignment from National Geographic to do a city story on Austin,” he says. “Those were generally 12-week assignments, so I got the rhythm down, I got hooked, and I moved here with my wife and three children in 1993.
“What I loved were these huge, wide-open spaces where I could work and get landscapes.”
Perhaps he came to Texas for the spaces, but he grew to appreciate the folks who occupied them just as much, or more.
“I love the character of the people of Texas,” O’Brien says. “They seemed larger than the big clouds in the skies, and they seemed heroic. It just merged with my photographic vision, and it still does today.”
For the original 2003 edition of The Face of Texas and its 2014 update, O’Brien went through decades of his portrait work for Life, National Geographic, Texas Monthly, and other noted publications to identify the folks he believes truly define that vision of the Lone Star State.
“I was thinking that if I threw all my selected shots in a big bowl and stirred them up, then we’d have a bowl of Texas soup.”
To provide more context to each of the portraits in the book, he invited his wife, former Life reporter Elizabeth O’Brien, to put pen to paper.
“She wrote very warm, human profiles of the people in a way that somebody can spend a minute on a spread and really see the person.”
The faces you’ll find when flipping through the new edition come from all different backgrounds, experiences, and time periods. In the celebrity category, you’ve got a pre-superstardom Beyoncé, Sissy Spacek in the fields of her hometown of Quitman, a 39-year-old George Strait holding a lasso in Pearsall, and literary giant Larry McMurtry in his supersized Archer City bookstore. A barbershop shot of the Houston rock trio ZZ Top remains one of band member Frank Beard’s family favorites. O’Brien says Beard’s wife bought 20 copies of the book.
Sports figures also appear frequently, from stark shots of rodeo star Ty Murray, quarterback Troy Aikman, and champion college football coach Mack Brown to an unforgettable portrait of Earl Campbell that celebrates both his football and barbecue legacies.
While George W. Bush and William Wayne Justice are included, no political figure is more beautifully depicted in the book than a former president’s beloved wife, Lady Bird Johnson. O’Brien recalls that when he and his assistant showed up in 1989 at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, they were greeted by a single Secret Service agent.
“He cleared us, we walked in, and it was just Lady Bird,” he says. “She had made iced tea and cheese sticks.” Later on, “she grabbed me by the arm and took me back to her closet and said, ‘These are my clothes. What would you like me to wear?’ ”
Bowled over by her warm reception, O’Brien helped her pick out the yellow skirt that ended up matching perfectly with the walls of the ranch’s little yellow library. Yet, more remarkable than the color scheme in the resulting shot are the posture and expression of the woman herself — poised, gracious, and strong.
O’Brien’s obvious talent as a portrait photographer lies in his ability to wait for and catch the moments of truth that emanate from the faces of his subjects, whether they are famous or unknown. Some of the finest work in the book captures ordinary people and families in small towns, at pageants and rodeos, hard at work, and resting at home.
Getting a great shot, O’Brien says, involves paying attention and letting things happen naturally.
“It’s a relationship between the photographer and the subject. When the subject sees how focused and how interested you are in them, I think they respond and connect to the camera.”
From the February/March 2015 issue.