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

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