The Digital Journalist
Introduction to
The Face of Texas
February 2004

by Michael O'Brien

When I stepped off the plane in Austin for the first time on a spring night in 1985, I felt immediately comfortable and oddly at home. I was living in New York at the time and Life magazine had dispatched me to Austin to photograph Willie Nelson making the movie, The Red Headed Stranger.

I ended up spending more than a month working on Willie's ranch in Spicewood, in the Hill Country just outside Austin, documenting the day-to-day filming. As the days passed, I became more relaxed. Life in Texas was slower - more deliberate - and certainly more peaceful than the frenetic pace of New York. The sky was big, a crisp, hard blue, with giant, dramatic clouds. The land was open and immense. The people, too, were larger than life - friendly, informal and generous of spirit. They seemed present in a way that was foreign to New York, or elsewhere; and I, too, became grounded in the moment.

Simply, Texas didn't look or feel like the rest of the country. Here there was a distinctive presence in the people and the land... a culture that was visibly evident. And it was mythic. Being from the outside - from Memphis, by way of Miami and New York - made it easy for me to see what made Texas different. I enjoyed celebrating it with my camera.

Over the years, I kept returning to Texas to work until I finally decided it would be easier to move. I settled in Austin in 1993 with my wife, Elizabeth, and our three children, Jesse, Owen and Sam. It's been our home ever since. I didn't know it then, but Texas had already made its mark on me.

In one way or another, Texas affects us all. The state has produced great men and women, enriching our country beyond measure. With George W. Bush, a Texan, in the White House, the state has been thrust into particular relief. In this book, The Face of Texas, there are all types of Texans: native, adoptive, and those who are just passing through. I remember in particular photographing the late Bob Holloway, a retired judge and dairy farmer from Decatur. When I told him I was originally from Memphis, he smiled and said, "Scratch a Texan and you'll find a Tennessean," calling forth visions of the Alamo. The Lone Star State shapes anyone who has stopped here, whether they have spent a few years or a lifetime.

Although these photographs span more than twenty years and cover a good portion of the state, The Face of Texas isn't meant to be either a complete portrait of the state or to represent a balanced cross section of Texas and its people. It is meant to be a celebration of the state through its people. Some are celebrities, others are "regular" folk; but all are unique and interesting in their own right. This loosely woven mosaic from my random wanderings over the years, from one assignment to another, is, simply, a collection of the people who have touched me. With vividly written stories by Elizabeth, you will see the "light" in each and every one of them.

Photography has been a great life for me. I can't think of another profession that would have afforded me the privilege of meeting so many diverse and extraordinary people, and granted me access to so many compelling places. I am truly fortunate. It has been a rich life. I am thankful for the generosity of all the subjects who have stood in front of my camera and allowed me to make their picture. Their photographs and stories tell a tale of an exceptional and mythical place called Texas.

© Michael O'Brien

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