All photographs by Michael O’Neill, except cover photograph by Bia Setti.
“I feel very young in my head, almost a teenager. You see, I never really grew up.” Not growing up is sometimes thought of as a negative, but holding one’s sense of childlike wonder into one’s seventies can be a marvelous thing. For Michael, his childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm for the world around him has served him very well. How else to explain someone who, with an ongoing photography and filmmaking career of 54 years and counting, who has been responsible for some of the most iconic images of our time, and who in spite of having had enough near-fatal health crises to scare the nine lives out of a cat, continues to be optimistic, open and excited about his work and the world around him. Michael, at 73, is the quintessential irrepressible optimist.
“People can do anything they want to do”
“People can do anything they want to do at any point in their lives, they just have to make the decision, be positive about it and take it on. I think people are ruled by fear and anxiety, thinking they are not good enough or can’t succeed at whatever. If you want to change your life, it is a decision. If someone is 60 years old and wants to expand their life into a new realm, why can’t they?”
Michael’s decision was to explore the great yoga masters of the world, a ten-year process that had its origin in his vast dossier of medical adventures. One never knows where events may lead, and what must have seemed at the time to be a series of tragic diagnoses, when powered by his lifelong sense of curiosity led to an entirely new body of work and view of the world.
The long litany of his interactions with the world of medicine began as a result of his non-stop work schedule. In the mid-nineties, at 48, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which ultimately led to a heart attack in the early 2000s. Given stents on numerous occasions, with the help of advanced medical technology, his life was saved. In 2012, while his heart was being checked in a CAT scan during one of these many procedures, doctors discovered a spot on his lung, leading to a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of a lobe from his lung.
Overcoming Physical Limitations
That was just the life-threatening stuff. In 2000, as a result of the physical contortions that his work as a still-life photographer had forced him into, he had neck-spinal surgery for some painful neck issues. As he often did, the morning he went into surgery he swam a sporty mile in the pool. By the end of the day, when he came out of surgery, he had a paralyzed left arm and was told he could never use it again. Determined not to spend the rest of his life handicapped, he sought out meditation and yoga as a possible way to help his condition. After a year, in combination with aqua physical therapy, he was able to move his arm again enough in the shower that he could reach the showerhead. A tremendous victory as he then knew he was not going to be permanently handicapped.
Finding Purpose With Yoga
In 2005, he was well enough that he made a proposal to Vanity Fair for an ambitious photography portfolio of the world’s great yoga masters. With the backing of Vanity Fair, he was able to do the initial portfolio of the great yoga masters: B.K.S. Iyengar, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, Rodney Yee, Colleen Saidman, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa and others. From this initial immersion, he worked for another 10 years on his own, using his own funds, to pull together the book On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace. “It was work that fascinated me more than the work I was doing photographing the who’s who of America.” It became his passion, his quest, his organizing purpose during this time.
Print to Screen
Then the hard part began: the selling of the book. After multiple publisher rejections, some nail-biting waiting and a few tears, an introduction to Benedikt Taschen led to Taschen publishing the book. On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace was released in Oct 2015. It seemed like a nice closing to a decade-long project but, as luck would have it, he was next given the opportunity to make the film version. The logistics of coordinating all the yogis was a massive challenge, as was the filming in India. His approach was the beginner’s mind: let’s just figure this out as we go — which they did to considerable acclaim. The film was released on Netflix in January 2017.
The film and the book have propelled Michael into another realm, a new level of influence and connection to an audience, that was considerably different from his other portrait work. Considered an authority, he was now receiving letters and emails from around the world from people who wanted advice and information on yoga and spiritual life.
Spirituality in Yoga
“Yoga, in modern times, is becoming more of a physical sport than a spiritual path. My purpose has revolved around the spirituality of it, the old traditions. It beats taking a picture of some famous fashion model.” Rather than merely reflecting the culture, he was moving the culture, which is a very different level of influence.
Respect for Elders
It was from his grandfather that he learned about art, about seeing and, ultimately, how to navigate the road ahead as a commercial photographer, that served him so well. It also taught him to respect age and information. “In all the critical relationships I’ve had with guides and teachers, most of them were seniors. I always loved to talk with the beings of wisdom. They were the greatest teachers.”
He started as a studio manager in Hiro’s studio, across the hall from Richard Avedon. Running Hiro’s operation turned into a career as a still-life photographer, which turned into a tremendous career as a portraitist. Amazingly, after photographing at the very highest levels, working with presidents and Hollywood stars, after creating a work like On Yoga, he is not that different from the kid he was growing up in NY in the sixties. “I’m just as insecure as I was when I was 18, and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. As life goes on, and one gets closer to …whatever the consequences are of aging and passing, however one chooses to philosophically view that, you think a lot more about what to do with the time that is left.”
“Time is different now”
“As we move on to what the yogis call the 4th stage, which is the elder, we think about different values. In many ways, I am now beyond certain physical needs, more in a mental and spiritual state. Doing some sort of rote job with cataloging my past work, which I perhaps should be doing, does not appeal as much as walking down the beach when it is pouring down rain and being alone, experiencing nature in that way. Time is different now.”
What’s next? He has been approached to do a film on meditation. “I’m insecure about whether I can do it or not, but that may be the next step, an hour and a half film on the concept of meditation. So life is pretty cool; you might as well wake up in the f-ing morning, stare at the sky and be grateful for everything that happens to you. Because we are really lucky.”
“Life is a becoming and it is a learning. To have an infinite curiosity, that is what keeps us going.”