Interview with photographer Alex O’Brien

An interview with young self-taught photographer Alex O’Brien, whom I already speak a little about here. Portfolio:

All photographs by Alex O’Brien

– Hi Alex. Can you tell a bit about yourself, how you came to photography, did you have any formal training ? What are your influence ?

I’m a photographer/artist based in Düsseldorf, brought up all around Europe. The first time I remember showing any interest in photography was in September 2008 on a trip to the Swiss Alps. I then found a book on the exhibition of the family of man which was a great inspiration at the time. I am self taught, but that is no great feat. Google was my friend.

My inspiration varies from day to day, but I am most inspired by life, nuances, absurdities, everyday scenes, light, pattern, chaos, philosophy, all which life entails. As far as artists go however, I take great inspiration from photographers such as Henry Wessel, William Eggleston, Paul Hermes, and numerous others.


– As far as I know you started with digital before switching to film camera. What are you using now and did the use of film change your approach to photography ?

Film photography has provided me with a temporary style. With digital I would experiment and create work of every genre. When I first started out with film, I intended to use it just for fun and recording where I had been but it gradually developed until I reached a point where I was surer of what I was interested in capturing. I shoot almost exclusively in colour, a polar opposite to what I did with digital, though that’s just because I can’t afford black and white film.



– You seem drawn to experimentation. Is it a way for you to try to find “your own voice”, or instead do you believe experimenting is “your own voice” as itself ?

I think it started out as a way of setting myself apart from others as I was learning the tools of the trade, but then it developed into my own voice. Every subject I photographed I tried to make look different. Now however I’d like to think my experiments in all the mediums which I work in have more of a certain style. I am not interested in enclosing myself within a particular genre or subject, but it would be nice for my work to have a similar aesthetic.


– What subject matters inspire you ? Are you drawn to some specific motifs ? …

Light is what determines how I take photos. In harsh midday light I find myself more prone to shooting cityscapes and people, night light I revert back to my atmospheric photography, evening light I find myself taking instinctive snapshots of people and cityscapes. Grey cloud and I normally put my camera away. The light is what really determines the photographs I take.


… On the other hand some of your work is very abstract. How do you get into that ?

It began by looking at some of the photos on 1x, at a time when I wanted nothing but to be published on that website. At the time I had a 5 megapixel camera which technically could never come close to anything I saw there. I lacked ability and photoshop skills. So I consciously decided to create moody, abstract images which lead to three published photos and a greater interest in that category. Then I bought a D90, which had I of bought several months earlier would have been used to recreate what I saw on 1x, but instead which I used to create blurry, abstract, grainy black and white images (things I could quite easily have created with my other camera). It was rebellion. I had a 1,000€ camera and using it to take photos which looked as if they’d been taken on a mobile phone. It was fun.

My photography now I would also call abstract as it has no logical reason to be, or clear message, or story. Abstract, but in a different way.


Tribal Dance

– How is your routine ? Do you go out with list of things or places to photograph ? How do you plan your work ?

I avoid planning. I cycle into the city and then just walk around for hours, following the light. However in Düsseldorf there are quite a few popular events. I sometimes go to these places and use it as an opportunity to capture things from the sidelines, which I wouldn’t normally do. The annual marathon and Japan day are often quite inspiring events filled with bizarre people which. Though I may just stay in bed.


Dragon Chasers

– You did a trip across England few months ago. What kind of photographic experience was it ?

As a photographic experience it wasn’t much. I took 20 gigabytes worth of photos, carried my camera every step of the way yet when I arrived home I just dumped all the photos on a hard-drive and let them sit. I haven’t looked at them since. The photos are a combination of multiple exposures, blurry photos, landscapes and photos more in my current style. When I arrived home I didn’t know where to start. 90% of the images were no longer of artistic interest to me. I think it is like that with all major projects. You go there, shoot as much as you like, but when you review them later you always think ‘it would have been better for me to go there now’, though that’s not necessarily true. The photos reflect a certain time and style in my life and that is enough. Art doesn’t improve with time, it just changes.

As an experience however, it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.


Middle of Life Crisis

– How was the making of your book ? ( Did you have some sort of agenda, or storyline ?

Not really. A few friends of mine had made books on blurb, so I thought that I might give it a go. I put some of my more recent photos up and the book gradually took on more of a theme in appearance. It culminated in a series of images taken between April and November on film and represented nothing other than a group of photos with a common aesthetic. I spent a lot of time arranging the photos on every page, that was important to me. It was not dissimilar to creating diptychs. The book-making process differed from a lot of my work in that it was quite carefully planned and executed, whereas most of my artwork, be it photography or painting or graffiti is instinctive.



– You will turn 18 this year – hence attain majority. So, getting started for shooting fine art nudes ?

That’s priority #1.

– Any specific ongoing project, or wish ?

My second book is almost finished – just need another roll of film developed. I was involved in a project called GMOA (Global Mission of Art) which does exhibitions around the world, but my activity there faded. I’m involved in a lot of street art projects which is a medium even more frowned upon than street photography. I do a lot of abstract painting and drawing. A wish for the future? Just to maintain creativity and happiness and be to myself.


out of "Away"


Thank you very much Alex, and keep on the good work.

The Boy and the Abstract Truth…

… Sorry for this apparent pompous title, but it is merely a pun on word with jazz album title “Blues and the Abstract Truth”, by Oliver Nelson (1962), a great album by the way…

No blues here, but a boy, Alex O’Brien, a 16 year old english photographer based in Cambridge UK.

I am not a real fan of abstract in photography, for several reasons that I will try to summarize briefly later on in this post. Also I don’t really get how most contemporary photographers classify their work as ‘abstract’. More than often abstract is a pretext to come up with something non-figurative but “pretty” and pleasant-looking in the first place, the kind of stuffs that hype restaurants managers would hang in their room, i.e. the somewhat visual art equivalent of elevator music (which I appreciate too ;)) … Sorry for being harsh and little offensive here but I do believe that when good-looking is the genuine – though sometimes undeclared – purpose it begins to be a mere matter of taste, and the final outcome might range from eye-candy, pretty (in the good sense) to cheesy. A matter of taste… is the problem since I believe that Art ends where taste begins (or the other way round).

There is nothing of that with Alex, as it is very obvious that he couldn’t care less about prettiness.

Pixel Pomegranate © Alex O'Brien

Pixel Pomegranate © Alex O'Brien

Abstract in photography began almost simultaneously as in painting, in the early 1910’s or so. There was Man Ray, who was among the first to come up with artistic outcome based on photographic emulsion paper without using the medium (i.e. nor camera nor film). Other photograms were made by László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Schad… Afterward many photographers did attempts in the abstract field, using more regular techniques and many of them without making a specialty of it… And in the 1910’s there was also British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn who did shots with the use of kaleidoscopic device that he would call ‘vortographs”.

Reproduced below is one of Coburn’s vortograph.

Arrow Shadows 1917 © Estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn

Arrow Shadows 1917 © Estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn

… and what Alex did with his Nikon D90 is not very far – at least from mere visual perspective.

Now the reason why I am not a big fan of Abstract photography (apart from the few words in introduction of this post) is that I find it hardly competes with abstract painting – and more generally any non pure-photo visual arts (including collage etc…). First and foremost other visual arts can provide visual information which is not just encapsulated in the support, as it is in a photo print. For example if Pierre Soulages black paintings are not plain black, it is because the way oil is laid down the canvas would provide motifs and gray scales by the action of surrounding light on it. In such abstract paintings there is additional dimension and interaction of the environment (natural light and resulting shadows) which is caused by the dry oil itself, its texture, thickness and any other material that may be used in the process.

Furthermore because a photo can be used as a material in collage it is tempting to assess that whatever successful you are in doing abstract photography it can always be reduced as a mere material for other visual arts.

Now I know this kind of statement is very reducing and photography has specific characteristics that makes it a relevant and powerful medium for abstract as well…. But this is much more challenging than it appears in the first place (and the reason why I don’t risk myself in that!). I do believe that in order to be successful to work as an abstract, a photography should represent a visual phenomenon which is questionable per se, and not just interpretation of a common subject matter – be it altered by common photographic techniques such as blur etc…. To put it roughly if the viewer thinks/says in the first place “This is a beautiful rendition of x” or “What’s that ? (with the only concern of guessing what is captured) ” it does not really work.

And this is precisely why I think Alex is successful, as well as Alvin Coburn was. Because not only he ignores doing something pretty, not only he is creating fine composition involving harmony, rhythm as well as tension, but furthermore he manages to create a peculiar visual phenomenon. In other words whereas many photographer would interpret a subject matter for a mere aesthetic outcome Alex O’Brien would reduce and alter the superficial information from subject matter to come up with something directly questionable as the heart of the (subject) matter, which is precisely what abstraction is about.

Alex O’Brien:
On deviantart :