Life through a Lens. An Alumni Photographer Discusses His Storied Career

Category: News

April 26, 2023
By Grace Homeyer, UT Knoxville Senior

Portrait of Willie Nelson by Michael O'Brien

For most students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Daily Beacon is a weekly publication that they may glance at while passing a stand on campus. For others like Michael O’Brien (‘72), it was a creative outlet that inspired a lifelong, rewarding career.

Michael O’Brien first discovered a love of photography as a high school student in Memphis. His friends were in a band called Big Star. Though he had no musical talent, he did have an artistic impulse and began to photograph the group. As an introvert, he felt the camera was a way for him to interact with the world from behind a lens. He and a friend set up a dark room in his grandmother’s basement, and thus began a life-long career in photojournalism and portrait photography.

Big Star
Big Star

O’Brien enrolled at UT in 1968 as a philosophy major. He wanted to pursue his love of photography, so he applied to the Daily Beacon and found that staff photographers were required to have a portfolio approved by the chief photographer. By his sophomore year, O’Brien was hired to the Beacon and was one of five or six staffers who taught each other how to compose and develop a good photograph. The photographers were paid $4 for every photo they published. As O’Brien remembers, they all “majored in photography” through their work for the Beacon.

He credits meeting Jack Corn as a pivotal moment in his photography career. Corn was a Nashville Tennessean photographer who traveled to Knoxville to photograph UT football games. He used the Beacon’s dark room to develop the photos and transmit them back to the Tennessean. O’Brien would visit Corn in Nashville to follow him around on assignments. He describes his college years as “a patchwork of photographic education that I kind of put together with the Beacon, Jack Corn, and the Tennessean.” With Corn, “I got a taste of what it would be like to be a photographer for a daily newspaper,” O’Brien said.

That taste turned into a six-year career with the Miami News. He has fond memories of his years with the South Florida paper as it was the beginning of his journey as a photographer. In this first role he was sent out on three to four assignments per day which challenged him to make good photos out of impossible situations.

Tazewell Tennessee photo by Michael O'BrienPhoto of Texas prisons for Life magazine by Michael O'Brien

In 1979, O’Brien moved to New York where he worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine creating documentary stories on subjects like the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and a school for troubled teenagers. He gradually shifted over to National Geographic, doing stories in Appalachian coal country and Austin, Texas. It was during this time that he began to do more portrait work.

O’Brien is now regarded as one of the nation’s most notable portrait photographers. A majority of his work depicts characters of small-town Texas but he has also worked with a variety of celebrities from Willie Nelson to Beyoncé to George Bush. In terms of his photography style, O’Brien explained that his goal behind every photo is “to take a remarkable picture that would make the reader stop, look at them, and connect with the subject.”

His photographs are housed in museums across the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and the International Center of Photography in New York. O’Brien’s career as a photographer has allowed him to interact with unique individuals and experience places from the plains of Texas to the streets of New York and even rural Australia. As he looks back on his career, he feels fortunate to have made a living doing something that he loved.

“I marvel at the different worlds that I was able to see and document,” he said. “The camera was a license to see so much of the world.”

Portrait of Warren Buffet by Michael O'Brien    Portrait of Danny Perry by Michael O'Brien    Portrait of Ila Johnston by Michael O'Brien     Portrait of Beyonce by Michael O'Brien   Portrait of President George Bush by Michael O'Brien    Portrait of Judge William Wayne Justice by Michael O'Brien