Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Conversation with Erin Patrice O'Brien

© Erin Patrice O'Brien

A few years ago when I worked as a freelance photo-editor I first came across the work of Erin Patrice O'Brien and I really like the energy in her book.

The following interview makes clear that the energy I saw in her pictures is a reflection of Erin herself.

© Erin Patrice O'Brien

Nymphoto: Tell us about yourself.

Erin Patrice O'Brien: I live in Brooklyn with my husband Pablo and my daughter Maya. MostlyI work for different editorial magazines and ad agencies specializing in portraits. I tend to do about half celebrities and the other half more reportage style portraits of real people. We spend part of the year in Buenos Aires where Pablo is from and I try to improve my Spanish. I have always loved photographing my family. I come from a big Irish-American family and they have always been an inspiration for me. I have always loved traveling and have lived and visited so many different countries.

© Erin Patrice O'Brien

NP: How did you discover photography?

EPOB: I studied fashion design at Drexel University and took lots of classes in photography. After a brief internship in fashion I realized I hated it and wanted to concentrate on photography.

I moved to NYC in 1995 after shooting weddings for 2 years for a totally conservative photo studio in Pennsylvania. I wanted to assist photographers whose work I liked but I really didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. I worked for a lot of photographers. Eventually I assisted some people who were doing good work. I spent all of my free time shooting and printing for my book. I felt like I lived at Printspace. I learned everything technical from assisting other people and eventually figuring it out myself.

© Erin Patrice O'Brien

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

EPOB:I have always been inspired by people who I think are doing something positive for the world. On the project I just finished, (Mamás Adolescentes: NYC 2006-2007) I was greatly inspired by Dr. Yvette Martas who was the obstetrician for the girls.

On a basic level I’d say that I’m inspired by light, color and movement. And more than anything I love to laugh. I love people who are funny. I’m inspired when the person I’m photographing is relaxed and having fun. I have ended up photographing a lot of comedians.

I am fascinated by any kind of counterculture Especially people who define themselves and their group visually. I would love to photograph an FLDS polygamist family or a gypsy family in Argentina. Any kind of ritual or uniform is always interesting to me.

Other inspirations have been the work of Mira Nair, Wes Andersen, David La Chapelle, David Hockney, Helmut Newton, Peggy Sirota, Cleo Sullivan, Livia Corona, Chris Buck, Martin Parr,

Elaine Constantine, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus and Brenda Ann Kenneally.

My husband Pablo has always been a great inspiration for me. He’s a musician and we are constantly coming up with new ways to shoot

his band for posters and albums. He has an offbeat sense of humor.

From The Mamás Adolescentes: NYC 2006-2007 project © Erin Patrice O'Brien

NP: How do your projects come about?

EPOB: The Mamás Adolescentes: NYC 2006-2007 project came about because I wanted to do a long term project. I had just had Maya . My idea of what it would be like to have a child versus the reality were very different. I wanted to know what it was like for a teenager. I had help and a career and even with that it was overwhelming for the first year. My doctor introduced me to the head of the Adolescent Clinic at Bellevue. I have found with photography that sometimes it’s just meeting the right person. Before meeting Dr. Martas, I had approached organizations but people were very wary of me. Nowadays there are so many privacy issues. I would go to the clinic every Monday that I wasn’t working and hang out and meet the girls. I convinced them to let me come to their homes and photograph them there. I wasn’t interested in the hospital setting. I started with about 10 different teenagers. Some were American and some were Mexican. I had to adapt to their schedules with no expectations. Many times I would show up at an arranged time and they wouldn’t be there. Or I would have to wait an hour while they took a shower.

I decided to present the work in a book format online. I worked with an Argentine web designer, Maria Onis. Even though I love books in print I felt like more people would see it online. For the gallery show we did really big prints and I went back and interviewed the girls. Their babies are now two. For the most part they are all having a pretty hard time. For so long I was working away at this project alone with the help of my assistants. In the end I met some great writers, Yesenia Ruiz and Franziska Castillo who helped with the interviews and gave me a greater understanding of some of the more linguistic nuances I was missing with the Spanish.

From The Mamás Adolescentes: NYC 2006-2007 project © Erin Patrice O'Brien

NP:What's next?

EPOB:I just returned from Argentina and am really interested in the online teen culture which is developing there. I plan to return in the early winter to start a new project of photographing these kids.

NP: Thank you so much!

To see more of Erin's work please visit her website:

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