Kate O'Brien creates wonderfully textured images with some of the best understanding of colour that I've seen in a long time. To me, her work is split into two sides, each with their own colour palette. I'm tempted to say good and evil, but the good is often tempered with a touch of evil and the bad is tempered with a touch of good.
On her site bio, it states "Projects are sometimes years in the making while Kate scours online auctions, op-shops, thrift stores and liquidators looking for just the right piece to complete the vision."
It feels as if her work is moving into a new phase and it was a great privilege to have been able to put my questions to her at this time.
To begin, I'm noticing that your work seems to be branching out in two directions. On one hand, there is a hemisphere of more muted, earthy colours with a more painterly style and earnest tone. On the flip side there's a bright, candy-coloured playground of mischief. Are you aware of this? If so, is there a definite reasoning behind it or it a kind of counterbalance to your moods? Or is it simply a new direction in which you are going?
I’m completely aware of it. I feel like over the past couple of months I am finally finding my feet. Prior to my recent work I felt a little bit directionless…sure, I had lots of ideas, in fact that’s one thing I think I’ll always have plenty of, but there didn’t seem to be any continuity to the work. It could be described as show-ponying. Just showing off what I could do, rather than having a distinct vision to what I was doing.
I have said before that I wanted my work to show the highs and lows of the human existence, but in some ways I feel that I didn’t achieve that at all. So, I guess now I’m just sticking to the lows for a bit. That’s the life I know best.
"...I get a lot of satisfaction out of exposing a little world my viewers can peek into..."
You’ve mentioned the importance of childhood memories on your work in your site bio. Which memories are feeding your most recent work?
I guess it’s not really about distinct memories. It’s about the innocence we lose as we grow up and become adults. Some of my work, particularly the vintage styled work is about memories that I create. It’s difficult to explain, but they aren’t my memories. I create memories for unknown people; - the characters I create in my photographs.
I guess I get a lot of satisfaction out of exposing a little world my viewers can peek into for a person that never really was.
You were studying intermedia and sculpture until your final year at the Queensland College of Art; what finally convinced you that photography was the calling you wanted to follow and why?
I’ve never been very good at sticking to anything I wasn’t skilled at. My sculptural work is some of the worst art I’ve ever made. I went through primary (elementary) school, high school and university knowing I had “something”, but I didn’t know how to channel it. I tried painting, drawing etc etc but have always been frustrated with the limitations of the medium or with my own ability to use it.
There are so many reasons why photography has been a natural progression for me. Mostly I suppose it allows me to indulge my passions. Obviously, I like making things, costumes, sets etc etc. I love ancient and modern history, so being able to justify collecting antiques and junk to use as props is pretty cool. I guess I also enjoy the satisfaction I get from producing a really good piece of work and knowing I was able to do it on an extremely tight budget.
In reality, I learned to use the camera to document what I was doing with models and props rather than the other way around. I never fancied myself as a photographer until early 2005 when I started playing around with a rather old 2.2MP digital camera my brother had somehow gained through questionable means. I didn’t get my first digital SLR until November 2006.
Although I’m yet to land a regular photography gig, I do sense a degree of jealously from colleagues who studied photography for 4 years at art school and haven’t had as much success or attention and when I’m asked by younger photographers starting out for advice, I always tell them that you can learn technique later, but if you don’t have ideas or you can’t realize them then you may end up shooting weddings your entire life!
"I kind of turned my back on the art world and traditional pathways..."
What do you think about the division of art into “fine art”, “pop art”, “street art”, etc.? And have you found it difficult not subscribing to the ideal of the “artist in the ivory tower”?
I guess I don’t really agree with those divisions. I’m sure I sound kind of ignorant saying this, but when it boils down to it, there is good art and bad art, there probably isn’t even that because it’s such a subjective issue. But you know what I mean? Good art for me is when all the elements of design are married together in the one image in a really harmonious way. So whether it is street art or fine art is irrelevant to me, if it has all the right elements, I’ll probably like it.
As for the artist in the ivory tower thing, I guess I like to see myself as a down-to-earth kind of person. Sure, I like the attention I get via my work, but I don’t want to be adored…respected is good enough for me.
I kind of turned my back on the art world and traditional pathways for that exact reason, and I probably shot myself in the foot because of it, but I can’t stand the bitchiness and the posturing that has to be done. If the work is good, good and if it sucks, fair enough but don’t ask me to brown-nose my way to the top. I just don’t have it in me.
Do you view digital and analogue photographic techniques (and their results) differently?
Oh yeah, for sure! I haven’t shot with film for years now. I’m no purist.
I’d love to have my own darkroom and lovely Rolleiflex camera, but I have fun with my little DSLR and I love the results I get out of it. Sometimes I wonder how I’d go shooting film again. I guess you learn to trust your ability more with film. Working digitally is like having a little safety net to tell you if you’re on track or not.
The 'Black Forest' Photoshoot
What’s that enchanting melody?
I’m a big fan of Jewish culture and I love Klezmer music (possibly a by-product of 7 years of clarinet lessons while I was growing up). The song is called ‘Nigun’ and it is by The Brandeis-Bardin Klezmer Ensemble. I chose it because it is very sad and dark which I felt suited the mood of that set of images. Music has become an important part of my work lately. It is inspiring me to perhaps attempt a music video at some point in the future.
What other arts do you practice or interest you outside photography? (And what impact have they had on your photographic work)?
There is so much work involved in my photos, ranging from makeup to sourcing the props for the photos that I don’t find a lot of time for anything else. Of course I am still working through my education degree as well, so my plate is pretty full already right now, although I always find time for my three ducks and two cats!
What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists aiming to make a career from photography (or art in general)?
Don’t ever accept less than you’re worth. You’ll both regret and resent it later…and it’ll make you a bitter old crow….like me
And any advice for the photographer on a budget?
Live and breathe your work and you will see opportunities everywhere you look. Beg, borrow and steal to get what you want.
Oh yes, and what did you do with the $32 deer’s head?
It’s hanging on my studio wall of course!
Thank you, Kate. I'm always looking forward to seeing new work from you. You're a star.
Kate O'Brien/EyeCandy... Flickr
Kate O'Brien/EyeCandy... MySpace