THE BLOG
03/31/2014 11:49 am ET Updated May 28, 2014

Bouncing Off the Brick Wall

Brick walls are underrated. Just because a phone doesn't ring with job offers doesn't mean that it's gone completely silent. If you're lucky, if you've been through it a time or two, when you hit a brick wall and no one is calling you for work, then creativity meets boredom meets desire to push you into your next big thing.

I was talking to my friend, the photographer Michael O'Brien the other day about his book Hard Ground. He said the only reason he did the project was that he didn't have any other work. If it hadn't been for this serious dry spell, he would've missed out on the whole thing.

Michael's photos have appeared in so many magazines and ad campaigns that it's not even funny. He's a true pro. Award winning. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the International Center for Photography in New York. And yes, as crazy as it sounds, even Michael O'Brien goes through stretches where the phone doesn't ring.

So what does he do when there is no work? He looks around for something to do.

Michael likes to take pictures. It's what he does best. Starting in 2006, during one of these strangely silent periods, he began volunteering at Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an Austin non-profit that distributes food to the homeless. As a favor to the organization, he started taking pictures of some of the people they served. And he kept on going, taking portraits for the next three years. Michael had time on his hands and no one was telling him what to do. So he chose to go completely old school, using an old view camera and Polaroid "Type 55" black-and-white film. The result was haunting, deeply intimate.

Doing this project, Michael was reaching back to his early days as a photojournalist, documenting the disenfranchised, the down-and-out in Miami. Now, as he took portraits of the homeless around Austin and wrote down their stories, he began to feel a deep connection to them. The result is Hard Ground. The photos are paired with poems by Tom Waits . It's a beautiful, heart-wrenching collection. I highly recommend it.

What I find interesting about Michael's story is that at a time when it would have been easy for him to throw up his hands and wonder why no one was calling (I'm sure he did a bit of this as well), he went out and built his own project. As he says in the book, taking pictures of "these urban wanderers gave me a reason and purpose for my work." At the very time when the photography industry was doing somersaults onto its own sword and Kodak was going bankrupt (ending his supply of film as well), Michael went back to the basics of his art. He used a lull in his calendar to push himself creatively.

Any artist that's been around for awhile knows all about these empty stretches of time when the phone doesn't ring. But like I said, brick walls are underrated. Michael O'Brien used his own brick wall as a kick in the ass to come up with something to do, something new. And in the process created some of the best work of his career.

That's how it's done, my friends.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.