He's an award-winning photographer who's worked with National Geographic, Texas Monthly and Life. She's a former reporter for Life who still gathers life stories. Husband and wife team Michael and Elizabeth O'Brien put their talents together to capture a bit of Texas history with the book The Face of Texas, a series of portraits and profiles of dozens of Texan characters. "Michael shot the photographs over 20 years while on assignment for various magazines," Elizabeth O'Brien says. "I had to go back and get the profiles either with interviews or doing as much research as I could."
The book includes several beauty queens such as Stephanie Kuehne, 1990's Miss Texas USA and the great-granddaughter of a woman who hunted mountain lions for a living. Kuehne's shown in full pageant mode. Wearing a winner's crown and bright pink swimsuit, a bouquet of yellow roses in her arms, she's standing in front of an Alamo movie set. Kuehne went on to have a successful career as an actress and model and now lives in Houston where she's involved in philanthropy work.
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"There are 17 new portraits and profiles for this edition," Michael O'Brien tells us. "And we updated six more." (Sissy Spacek got a new photo for example; O'Brien selected another image from the same photo shoot.) There are plenty of musicians (ZZ Top, Junior Brown), athletes (Troy Aikman, Tim Duncan) and politicians (George W. and Laura Bush, Lady Bird Johnson and Kinky Friedman) .
Not all of the people profiled in The Face of Texas are famous. There's Annie Mae Hayes (1924 - 2002), manager and dispatcher for City Taxi in Waxahachie for 24 years. Hayes may not have been known outside of her community, but Elizabeth O'Brien's profile of her captures a sense of the impact she had on her community. Friends remember her as a voice of calm who spoke out during the desegregation of schools and other community issues. "People listened when she talked," her boss Robert Barber recalled.
Also among the less well known are five girls from Waxahachie High School dance squad Cherokee Charmers, each of them wearing white cowboy boots, a short dance uniform and the perfect big-hair do. Michael O'Brien's photo is wonderful but it's the accompanying description by Elizabeth O'Brien that really hooks the reader. "I tell him all the time, the book is so popular because of my stories," she jokes.
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There are several Houstonians and former Houstonians in the mix, including Lakewood Church leader Joel Osteen (standing in the middle of his cavernous church), socialite Lynn Wyatt (in a red evening gown posed on a River Oaks-area esplanade) and Olympian Carl Lewis (shown in silhouette, his muscles rippling as he takes a runner's stance). Earl Campbell, the Heisman Trophy winner and former star running back for the Houston Oilers who later became a businessman and restaurant owner in Austin, is shown in front of a blazing barbeque pit.
After 20 years of photographing Texans, O'Brien had thousands of photos to select from for the book. It was a task that was less daunting than it might seem. "It's little differences that mean the world to me and I fall in love with just one specific image," Michael says. "That's the reason I take so many pictures [during the session], to get it perfect. I can have a hundred pictures and only one is the right one."
Willie Nelson, the perfect representation of rugged, semi-outlaw spirit that echoes the state's Old West heritage, was on the cover of the first edition of the book a few years ago, and he's on the cover of this updated edition as well. (It's a stark black-and-white photo showing an unsmiling Nelson in profile, a bit grizzled with a scruffy beard, a long braid falling over his shoulder.) "What better face than Willie [Nelson] to capture the feel of Texas?" Michael O'Brien laughs.
Michael and Elizabeth O'Brien discuss and sign copies of their book in a Blue Willow Bookshop-supported event at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 30 at West Houston Community Center Library, 725 Bateswood. For information, call 281‑497‑8675 or visit bluewillowbookshop.com. Free.