Going for the Gold
Photographer Michael O'Brien, who took portraits of Olympic hopefuls for "The Magnificent Seven," discusses how to get the perfect pose.
texasmonthly.com: When did Texas Monthly art director Scott Dadich first approach you with the idea of photographing the Olympic hopefuls? What was your initial reaction?
Michael O’Brien: At the beginning of May. I thought it was a wonderful project. I love photographing people, especially exemplary people like these athletes.
texasmonthly.com: Had you done much sports photography in the past?
MO: I’ve been doing photography for thirty years and I’ve done everything. Action-sports photography is not my forte, but Scott and I decided to do portraits of the different athletes that would surprise and be unexpected.
texasmonthly.com: What do you mean when you say “surprise”?
MO: We photographed Steven and Diana Lopez but not at the tae kwon do studio. [Diana is an alternate on the Olympic team and not pictured in the magazine.] Instead associate photography editor Leslie Baldwin found this terrific low road by a reservoir, and there was a view of a beautiful, clear horizon. We took them someplace where you’d never expect to see them in their tae kwon do uniforms.
texasmonthly.com: How familiar were you with the careers of the athletes before this assignment?
MO: Well, not very because I’m not a sports buff. I like to meet people and react to them on a very personal basis without having known the whole history of their careers. In fact, it wasn’t until I was making the last picture of Steven Lopez that I found out that he won a gold medal in the previous Olympics. I said, “I would have been much more humble had I known that.” I might do a search on the Web to find pictures of what they do that will give me visual ideas. I like to talk to them about their workouts, the stress of trying out for the Olympics, and the challenges they’re facing. That’s always fun. These people were, for the most part, very generous with their time, in particular Laura Wilkinson, whom we photographed down at the Woodlands Athletic Club, in the Woodlands, where she trains. Laura works out on the ten-meter board, and my assistant Michael Hartung and I had to figure out how to get about 150 pounds of photo equipment up three stories. When you’re carrying 35-pound sandbags up a tiny ladder, you realize you’re challenged. Laura looked at us and asked if she could help us carry some stuff. Usually with a subject, particularly a celebrated athlete like Laura Wilkinson, who won a gold in 2000, you don’t expect that generosity. She had been there since eight o’clock in the morning, and she worked with us for about five hours. I was talking to her about the stress of competition, and she said I was talking about stress in a bad way and that sometimes it is a very good thing. She told me I had stress at the photo shoot, but it was making me perform. She was right. She framed it differently. She framed stress as a very solid, good motivating factor.
texasmonthly.com: How comfortable were the athletes about having their pictures made?
MO: You just talk to them and interact with them. You get relaxed and get a sense of one another. The photographs were obviously to celebrate what they have done, and I tried to make pictures as interesting as their careers. So really, the stress was on me to figure out what to do. Scott, Leslie, and I had talked over ideas. We had a general feel of what they would be and look like, but as the photography went on, we knew that there would be seven photos, so we tried to make them different—shooting some in color, some in black and white, some in both. A few were close-ups and some were taken farther away so that Scott could do a layout that would give a rhythm and a balance to the selection of photographs.
texasmonthly.com: How did you decide how the athletes should pose? How much instruction did you give them as opposed to allowing for spontaneity?
MO: Gymnast Hollie Vise is a good example. I watched her during her workout and got some ideas from what she did, but I knew we wanted a shot on the balance beam because that’s how the lighting and the backdrop would work. I said, “Run through some things that you do on the balance beam,” and we took some quick Polaroids. From those, I picked about two or three different poses. One of the best shots we got was when she was on her belly with her legs over her head—her body looked like a horseshoe. Many of the poses she can hold for a couple of minutes, but she can only hold that particular one for about two seconds. And she didn’t want to do it more than six or seven times, so when she did it, we had to get it.
texasmonthly.com: So when you were deciding how they should pose, you looked at what they did and went from there?
MO: Raasin McIntosh is a hurdler, and I knew she starts from the blocks, bent over like a sprinter. We went out on the landing strip at the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport and that just gave us an unlimited horizon line. The idea was to have her bending over like she was starting in a race.
texasmonthly.com: How did you choose the settings for your pictures?
MO: I kind of waited for ideas to come. For Raasin I knew I wanted something uninterrupted and vast because I wanted the figure of her body to be against the sky. I had to find a barren place where I wouldn’t be fighting with tree lines. I wanted kind of an epic-looking location outside for the tae kwon do brother and sister. That was unusual. We photographed Laura on a backdrop and then we photographed up thirty feet high on the diving platform, so I was kind of constrained. Some I went in with a clear vision of what the picture would look like. And some, like with Laura, I didn’t have any idea. I had never photographed a diver before, but I knew with the pool and the water that I’d have enough possibilities that I could try several different things and see what happened. Some of them were kind of just letting serendipity play a part. Others, like Raasin, were really planned out. For Andra Manson, I was all set up to do an action shot of him going over the high jump, but his coach came up to me before and said the Olympics were the important thing for Andra and not to have him do a bunch of jumps. He did about three, and that was it because he didn’t want to jeopardize the Olympic tryouts. On the spur of the moment I had an idea to get a low angle and have him do a small jump into the air from the standing position, not over the high jump but just so he would look like he was floating. I never would have come up with that unless I’d gotten into a pickle with the fellow only being willing to jump three times over the bar.
texasmonthly.com: Are you involved at all in the selection of which photos get used?
MO: I pick what I think are the best pictures in black and white and in color and mark those, probably at least six pictures for every subject. That gives Scott a variety to choose from. I think after I’ve been with them and I’m so close to them, they need an objective eye, somebody who’s looking at them fresh. So there’s a real benefit when you have somebody as talented as Scott to look at them and figure how to put them together so that they’re visually interesting as a group. What I try to do to is give him enough to take the pieces and put the puzzle together, and what may be best for the article may not be the very best picture of the person.
texasmonthly.com: Which was your favorite athlete to photograph?
MO: Oh, gosh, that’s so hard. I liked all of them, but I thought that Laura, Steven, Diana, Raasin, and Cat [Osterman] were particularly generous with their time and really, really involved with the photographs. If the Olympics are in front of you, like Laura, to take four or five hours to work with a photographer, I think that’s incredibly generous. She was really nice and very upbeat. She would look at Polaroids and say what she liked and get excited by them. She was willing to try anything, like making faces in the water of the swimming pool. If every person was as vested and into the shoot as Laura or Steven, photography would be so easy.
texasmonthly.com: Can you recall any funny moments that happened during the shoots? Or anything out of the ordinary?
MO: When I got up on the ten-meter diving platform for the first time and looked down, Laura looked over at me as my white knuckles were grabbing the rail and asked if I was afraid of heights. And I said, “Yes, yes, I am, but this is a very sturdy platform, and I like that it has rails on the sides of it.” She would stand with her back to the water up on her toes, and I’d have to go right to the edge to take a light reading. She would look at me, giggle, and say I was going to be okay. She wasn’t going to let me fall.