Friday, June 4, 2010

Irish Eyes: Niall O'Brien

Image from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

Irish born, London based photographer Niall O'Brien has had an incredible journey through his photography since his beginnings as a student in Dublin. Working alongside the cream of the Irish fashion world, Niall quickly struck out on his own, making his mark as one of the best young photographers in the small pond that is the Irish fashion world.

Not content with putting down roots at home, Niall skipped across the Irish sea to cut his teeth in the London photo scene. Landing a job with artist Sam Taylor-Wood and getting an insight into the world of the photo-artist, Niall used his time wisely, never resting at his assisting job and always searching to find a way of working that was distinctly his.

Stumbling across a group of delinquent youths that would eventually become the subject of a short film 'Superheroes' he made in 2006, Niall knew he had found the subject matter that would define his photographic process and way of working for the coming years. The project developed into the series 'Good Rats' which was the subject of a solo show at Art Work Space in London earlier this year, garnering a huge amount of attention around the photo world and beyond.

Niall's journey is beginning to come full circle as editors and advertisers clamor to get a piece of the aesthetic and energy that Niall honed over his four years grafting on work that was entirely personal. I caught up with him recently...on the internet.

Image from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

Your ‘Good Rats’ series has been blowing up the blogosphere lately and attracting incredible press and publicity. Tell us about the project.

Good Rats is an exhibition I just had that stems from my long-term project called Superheroes. It is a documentary about adolescence, which grew from a film I made in 2006 about a group of friends. The groups were a bunch, nihilistic, destructive young lads and I couldn’t let them go after we finished. Hence I’ve been shooting them for 4 years now. They were punks too. My project was about youth and when I met them I treated the aesthetic of what they wore as the ribbon on the gift.

Image from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

How do the punk kids feel about being the subject of an art exhibition? Is Punk far different in 2010 from where it was in its origins?

They are cool with it. To be totally honest they are unfazed and not entirely interested. They are more concerned about they way they were kicking stuff in the pictures than the pictures themselves. The show as exciting for them as it put them on a small pedestal for an evening, what kid wouldn’t like the attention? I was never a punk growing up, I was a punk kid but I mean that as in I was a brat. All my knowledge about punk rock past and present comes from learning trough the kids and people telling me. The aspect of youth and witnessing it again is my main interest. I’m keen to be subtle in its approach too.

The project kind of had an unusual evolution, starting with your film and transitioning into more traditional documentary work. How did that relationship develop?

I’d like to think long-term projects come about because of chance or an inspirational meeting or introduction. I love the idea of coming across a gem of interest through a random meeting and seizing the opportunity. It was difficult at first, as the lads didn’t give me much time when I came down to Kingston to visit them. In fact because they didn’t give me much time I think it made for more interesting and natural pictures, I was totally ignored. Now they call me up a lot to see what I’m doing.

Where does the line between the photographer and his subject begin and end for you?

I try really hard to keep distance. I never give my views and never encourage or discourage. Sometimes I find it difficult but I have to. There is no other reason I do this than to document and re-live something precious to me. I’m a photographer not a counselor and they respect that.

Images from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

Delinquent youth is one of those classic storylines that continue to fascinate audiences. You mentioned Larry Clark’s ‘kids’ as a formative piece of work for you...

Absolutely. My early interest to any sort of visual art has always stemmed from Larry Clark. That was before I got into photography. Even though this project isn’t a million miles from ‘kids’, I had no part to play in orchestrating that. They came to me and I followed and treated it like a gift. I loved Clark’s work because I thought I’d never be able to befriend and gain trust with a group of kids like that.

The series marks a bit of an aesthetic shift in your work, how has your journey as a photographer unfolded so far?

Massive shift really. I’m not used to documentary photography. This came to me and it controls its own development. I some times feel I’m along for the ride. My work and approach has changed a lot in four years and my view on photography is completely different too. I used to be more considered and controlling when shooting, now I’m all over the place. It is all in my edit and that is what makes it exciting each time I process film, I’ve something unexpected to find.

Images from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

Tell us about what you’re currently working on?

I’ve a lot on. A lot of film work and some photo projects and commissions. Film is getting really exciting. I don’t have a background in it and feel really naive and new. I love it like that, ignorance is bliss and I have this excitement to learn, kind of like when I was in college. I’m still discovering my style in moving image and know it might take some time but I’m shooting a lot.

Image from the series 'Good Rats' by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010

You’ve been represented by D+V management for some times now, tell us about life with a big photo rep?

D+V are the most encouraging people in my life right now. My work is completely different to the other artists on their books and they respect that totally. I think it is a learning curve for both of us. I’m trying to get into shooting more commercial pictures but keep it true to my aesthetic and D+V are right behind me.

Haider Ackerman and Tilda Swinton by Niall O'Brien Copyright 2010


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