For the latest in our Lovesourced series, we spoke to photographer and designer Joseph D.R. O’Leary about his Kickstarter campaign “Of Beards and Men”, a collection of over 130 portraits that “explore society’s current fascination with defining masculinity”.
For the past year, Joseph D.R. O’Leary has been inviting bearded men to his studio to have their portraits taken. Why? To explore the relationship between men, their beards and their identity.
The Minneapolis College of Art and Design graduate, who lives and works on his farm outside of the city, photographed each man in his own clothes (or without in certain cases) and with props that lead the viewer to learn some insight about that man’s individuality. What is made clear through O’Leary’s work is the extent to which facial hair is not only an extension of a man’s outfit, but their identity as well.
Firstly, can you tell us about your background as an image maker / photographer?
My mother tells me that when I entered the first grade I came home crying because unlike kindergarten which was all about making things with finger paint, bird seed, milk cartons, construction paper, and macaroni, that first grade required me to do spelling, math, and reading which were not my strong points. I have always enjoyed creating things and making pictures. I stumbled through elementary and high school and finally arrived at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where I was able to focus on what I love…creating. I graduated with a BFA in graphic design and minored in photography.
For more than 20 years I’ve been doing design and love it. But any time that I can get into the studio to make portraits is just as precious to me. Design and photography are based on many of the same principals of composition; however, a photographer friend of mine once told me that it is much easier for a designer to be/become a photographer than the other way around. The main difference is that design starts with a completely blank page in which you add the elements of type and image. In photography, you need to decide what to eliminate in front of your lens and to distill the image to what’s necessary to tell the story.
Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?
I love looking at photography — all styles and genres. I’ve always admired the work of photographers Bernhard and Hilla Becher, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman as well as artists like Chuck Close, David Lynch and the Dutch Masters — a real mix. I love images that are rich and dramatic with a touch of the epic, surreal, or macabre.
My style is a fusion and reaction to everything I’m attracted to in movies, books, music, online, performance, etc. As a designer and photographer, I have a hard time letting anything get past me. I’m constantly visually analysing everything I see, experience and touch. How that plays itself out changes from project to project. Each project requires a new vantage point to present and express the idea as succinctly as possible.
What was the motivation behind ‘Of Beards and Men’ and what excited you most about it?
The motivation was multifold. Up until I started this project, most of my work was self-portraiture and I was wanting to try more formal portraits, but not what people typically think of when they think of portraiture. I was looking to make portraits that had an element of consistency like German photographers Bernhard and Hilla Becher, but that also hinted at the paintings of the Dutch Masters…formal, serious, elevated, and that glorified the sitter and their unique character.
In addition, the project started as a way of refocusing my energy after a difficult time with my brother suddenly dying in a car accident and my own debilitating bout of Lyme disease. This project pulled me through and it was definitely this darkness that brought this project to light.
What draws you most to portraiture?
I love people. I love hearing their story. I’m so often completely immersed in my design work that I really appreciate the diversity of doing a shoot — I’m forced to focus on someone else for a period of time. It’s awesome! It’s like going to a movie or a mini vacation where this person becomes your focus and everything else slips away.
Beards seems to have undergone a resurgence in fashion and popular culture. Why do you think this is?
History seems to repeat itself I suppose. In doing this project, I’ve really developed a favourable bias regarding beards. Oddly, when I started the project I was somewhat in the camp that thought men with big beards were not to be trusted, or they had something to hide hence the beard to hide behind. The more I talked with these men the more I realised the exact opposite and now I wonder how it is that notion even came about. Of the 135+ guys I photographed they all were incredibly open, honest, and real. It’s a brotherhood. Guys with beards are amazingly comfortable complimenting another man on how his beard looks. It’s like the slap on the ass on the football field that teammates are comfortable doing. An ‘atta boy’. And it’s acceptable. I love that.
On the subject of masculinity and personal identity, who do you think is really controlling the image; you and your camera, or the subjects and their facial hair?
In a recent essay by Vicki Goldberg who wrote about my work, she stated: “Portraits are deceptive. We’ll never know what degree of a man’s identity was due to his attitude before the camera or to the photographer’s idea of him. Richard Avedon said it all: ‘We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me’.”
I couldn’t agree more. The guys who came to be photographed had a “story” to tell. But I ultimately have control how that story gets told. In general my goal is to put these guys on centre stage—literally. I often photograph them from a low angle to give them a sense of being larger than life. I think our culture is obsessed with fame. Reality TV, social media, and the Internet allows us to be “in control” of our “identity” and to “promote” ourselves as we want to be seen. In a way this project feeds right into that idea. My goal is to create portraits that accentuate and epitomise the unique character of each man.
Pick your three favourite photos from the collection and explain why you chose them.
Three? That’s difficult. I like them all because of the experience of photographing every one of the guys. They all came as willing subjects wanting to give their beard 15 minutes of fame. During the shoot we talked, sometimes for hours and I really feel I got to know these people and their story. If I must, I would select Andrew, Eric and Chris.
Andrew was a breakthrough moment for me. I can’t quite explain how or why, but he, a farmer by trade, was incredible in front of the camera…the camera loved him.
Eric on the other hand came to me as an actor. He played Paul Bunyan in commercials and it’s a persona that stuck with him. He definitely fits the Paul Bunyan look. There’s a sadness or intensity in his eyes that I really responded to. Again it was a fleeting moment that summed up what I felt told the story I wanted to tell.
With Chris, he came to me as a newbie, referred to me by his friend. When he arrived with his briefcase in hand I wasn’t sure what to expect inside. When I asked what it held he told me to go ahead and open it up. Inside was a time capsule of his father. His father who passed away from cancer when Chris was only 16, was a writer and had written a journal that started 6 months before Chris was born and described all the excitement and emotion of becoming a father. He wrote in it religiously with exquisite care and the finest, most beautiful penmanship for the months preceding Chris’ birth and the years that followed. Chris now had this amazing journal about him written by his father…a memory that Chris will hold onto forever. The portrait is beautiful because you see Chris holding his most treasured memories in his hand.
What equipment do you use?
Nikon D800 and a 60mm and a 24-85mm and four Profoto compact flashes with a variety of light modifiers, soft boxes and grids. My favourite is the beauty dish and the egg crate grids.
Do you have a beard?
Indeed I do. It’s not epic, but I love it. Why? I think every man needs to experience the growth of a beard and the feeling of manliness it brings along with it.
What’s next for ‘Of Beards and Men’?
What’s next? Good question. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. At the moment I’m completely immersed in getting the word out about the “Of Beards and Men” Kickstarter campaign which runs through August 15, 2013. The campaign was created to generate funds to print the “Of Beards and Men” book. The book will be a handsomely designed and exquisitely printed 168-pages coffee table book with 130+ portraits and three essays written by photo critic George Slade, photographer/educator Douglas Beasley, and Twin Cities arts writer Andy Sturdevant.
To pledge your own support…
Like what you see? Follow the link below to Joseph’s Kickstarter page and help make his hairy dream a reality. More information can be found at the project’s website.