LOOK17: Michael James O’Brien

In the Eye of the Beholder

There are many similarities between the working processes of photographer and painters. As I continue to work with artists in both mediums, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the intersections between composition, scale and subject matter in both disciplines. It’s a huge subject that numerous books have been written about and it’s definitely too much to even attempt to wrestle with here!

When looking at portraiture, one aspect of the artistic process that I find fascinating is the relationship between artist and sitter. In some cases the time spent together may stretch into days, weeks, months, even years. I remember discussing with David Dawson his time sitting for Lucian Freud. He described the lengthy sessions, frozen in Freud’s chosen pose like a trespasser in an enchanted forest. David described a process that would involve sessions that would last for hours, which would be repeated day after day for months at a time. Other sitters have reported similar experiences, often considering the serious time commitment needed to sit for Freud. As a practising artist himself, David would often find the process stimulating, although sometimes he found that looking at his own blank canvas


When sitting for a photographer, the process is often quicker, sharper, more immediate, with the environmental, physical and psychological transaction between the artist and subject almost instant.

The shutter clicks. The moment is captured.

Scene setting and the preparation takes longer than the shoot itself.

Yet, the length of time taken between the two mediums to capture the subject doesn’t detract from the unique intensity of the relationship between sitter and artist: that bond of trust, the willingness to sit and take direction trusting the artists to capture your true nature.

The immediate nature of photography can actually increase the intensity of the process. Rather than building up a relationship over time, the sitter and photographer share a unique split second as the photographer stares down the lens and the sitter stares back. The end result is then shared with us the viewers, as we stand in the same spot as the photographer did, looking into their frame.

This weekend saw the opening of an exhibition by internationally renowned photographer Michael James O’Brien. As I walked through the portraits on show I was struck by the portrait of Andy Warhol taken in 1985, just two years before his death, with his Georgia O’Keeffe inspired work in the background. Warhol sits, checked shirt open at the collar, tie sitting loose, staring at us, eyes fixed.

Andy Warhol

He looks vulnerable, tired, almost resigned, with art dealer Edmund Gwaltney standing guard.

At the after-show dinner I sat next to another photographer, David Gwinnutt. We talked about his practice and the conversation focused on the moment – that split second that will only ever be shared by photographer and sitter, that implicit trust and the relinquishing of control on both sides of the lens, the observer and the observed. John Ingledew’s view of portraiture is that, “There is always more than one person in a portrait: there’s the sitter and the photographer. Together they create the portrait, it is a record of their encounter. But is it a meeting of equals?” John Szarkowski introduces a book of photographic portraits by stating, “A portrait is a battle between two wills for the sitter’s soul. It can be a battle of wills or in some instances, more collaborative.” Michael James O’Brien agrees, “All portraiture is a form of self portraiture. Throughout my career I’ve tried to avoid what my friend Duane Michals calls the ‘stand and stare’ school of portraiture.”

Quentin Crisp.01

Alongside the familiar faces of Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp and Gilbert and George, O’Brien has also selected portraits taken during a visit to Liverpool in 2016. With their muted tones, these photographs feature musicians, artists and curators, most looking away from the camera.

Tim Van Den Oudenhoven.2012.01.rtp

It makes me wonder how it feels to be selected to sit for a portrait? Joanna Woodall in Portraiture: Facing the Subject describes the elevated status enjoyed by the chosen ones, “The very existence of the portrait conveys the message that the sitter ‘deserves’ to have a portrait done. This is a clever bit of tautological reasoning; worthy sitters have portraits made. The existence of the portrait justifies and even amplifies the worthiness of the sitter to be portrayed.” Woodall’s view seems to transcend both medium and time, whether it be a depiction on canvas or by camera, the essence of the individual is frozen in time, in the moment, and acts as a mirror to those of us who look upon it.

Angela Samata 


His Tender Heir: Portraits by Michael James O’Brien is showing as part of LOOK/17’s fringe programme until 30th April at The Gallery Liverpool 41, Stanhope Street, Liverpool L8 5RE
Opening times Tuesday – Friday 12 – 4pm 


Image Credits:
James Morris ©Michael James O’Brien
Andy Warhol ©Michael James O’Brien
Quentin Crisp ©Michael James O’Brien
Tim van den Oudenhoven ©Michael James O’Brien

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s