Emma presents (again)… Michael O’Neill

Unit 5 1.1

My classmate, Emma, was horrified at the idea of having to do a presentation. So horrified, that she did two presentations. I don’t know what she was thinking (Maybe that the first one wasn’t good enough? Wrong.) but the upshot is I have to now write about another photographer. Cheers, Em. It’s not that I am bored with learning about photographers that inspire my friends. Far from it. It’s just writing up the presentations that’s a tad tiresome.


Photograph of the photographer, Michael O'Neill.
Michael O’Neill

Fortunately, Michael O’Neill is an interesting chap with an extraordinarily diverse career. Now in his late 60’s (or so Emma told us – I can’t find anything, anywhere to confirm his birthdate), he kicked off his career in the 60’s photographing in the Mexican Jungle (would love to be more precise than that but not sure exactly what it was he was photographing – jaguars? Drug cartels? Lost tribes? Any clue, let me know). Next, he moved to commercial still life before breaking into bigtime portrait photography in the 80s. Orson Wells; Jennifer Lopez; Jack Nicholson; every frickin’ US President from Nixon onwards – all manner of celebs have sat for Michael and his work has appeared everywhere from Vanity Fair and The New York Times to Rolling Stone and Time Magazine.

Emma explained that he aims for a connection with each and every subject, looking to break down the wall between them and the camera. He uses a range of cameras, including large format, and has a very broad style.


To be honest, while looking at the portrait section of his online portfolio, I struggled to find any universal connection. To my untrained eye, it looked as though he just went with whatever he thought would work best on the day… either that, or there was an elephant in the room (for elephant, read art director) that he could not ignore.  I felt slightly confused by the portfolio. Some shots, invariably in black and white, I really liked. I’m a sucker for a bit of moody monochrome.



Others, like the shot of Bruce Willis or the Saudi Prince, just seemed overtly commercial and a tad bland.  Unlike, say, with Yousuf Karsh, whose portfolio, for me, was just one almighty gobsmacked “wow”, I was, at times, underwhelmed. But that’s art for you, eh? Subjective and all that.



I much preferred his abstract work and also the Zoo Babies project that he started in 1991. A body of work that explores our desire to anthropomorphize animals, it’s also a downright cute-fest. I couldn’t actually give a hoot about the academic reasoning for it – a baby chimp and a feisty, tiny tiger, though? I mean, what’s not to love?

But the shots I felt the strongest pull to were Michael’s images of leading gurus from the world of yoga and meditation. Back in 2000, Michael had spinal surgery that left him paralysed in his right arm; which, as you can imagine, was a total bummer for a (right-handed) photographer. Told he’d never regain the use of his arm, he refused to accept his consultants’ dismal prognosis and, instead, turned to Kundalini yoga and meditation in an attempt to heal his racked body. And it worked. Four years on he’d regained full movement and, more importantly, become completely and utterly obsessed by yoga and meditation and the positive-power they wield. As he put it:

“Yoga changed me spiritually too, in terms of grace and of attitude.”



He has spent the years since travelling the world to document both practices and his book, “Yoga: The Architecture of Peace” is an amazing celebration of the two disciplines. Now a Yoga teacher himself, Michael’s strong emotional connection is tangible in these images and, I suspect because of this, I was drawn in completely to the work. Clearly, his discovering yoga has proved life-changing on numerous levels. He talks about his spiritual journey here and here in two short videos that are definitely worth a few minutes of your time. You never know, they might change your life, too.


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