Photographer and Designer Joseph D.R. OLeary lives and works on a hobby farm outside of Minneapolis. He restored and converted the farm granary into a studio where he does art/portrait and self-portrait photography. His work has been included in exhibitions in Minnesota, Virginia and Colorado. In Fall 2012, he was published in the London-based magazine Mascular featuring six of his self-portraits from the “Delicate Scars” series. His current project is creating 125 portraits for the forthcoming book, Of Beards and Men.
The project started several years ago while Joe was looking through archives of old portraits. He realized that over the decades, beards will come-and-go and are in-and-out of fashion. Examining today’s society, Joe surveyed that beards are “in fashion”, but “out of favor.” “Rarely do you see a bearded man holding a public office,” notes Joe, “even more rare a bearded Anchorman on the news. And, when was the last bearded President elected?” (Benjamin Harrison 1889-93).
With Of Beards and Men Joe sees himself as creating a visual record of masculinity circa 2012-2013. He used his subjects to explore the idea of facial hair as a form of creativity, self-expression, and perhaps a touch of rebelliousness.
Interestingly, Joe says that men with beards are a “captive audience” as models for his work—often eagerly willing to pose for him and very proud and excited to give their beards 15 minutes of fame, and turned out to be a great way to attract subjects. You see, beards are often a way to “peacock” a man’s masculinity, virility, and individuality. “I see men pushing their own limits to define who they are as individuals and to create personas in reaction to male stereotypes and expectations,” says Joe.
As for Joe’s inspiration? “I’ve always been fascinated with people and portraiture — both painting and photography. I’m enamored with the Dutch Masters. They have an incredible sense of light and shadow and their ability to create paintings with a sense of hyper-realism. It is from them that I take my greatest inspiration.”
As for creating Of Beards and Men, Joe says “I’m obsessed with this project. Every detail.”
He looks at creating each portrait with the goal of creating an inspired portrait. “I ask each guy to bring a few clothing options and a prop or two that together define them professionally, personally or spiritually. Some people arrive with the clothes on their back and others bring a suitcase. Upon arrival we chat, take a few pictures and talk some more and continue to have a lively exchange of conversation and portrait making.”
Photographing 125 people takes a lot of time—with some sessions taking up to 6 hours to get just the right series of images. As he began the series, Joe started shooting just on weekends, then adding nights and ultimately precious work-week hours in an effort to get more time for everyone. He is clearly obsessed—in an artist’s way, about beards, men and portraiture.
Joseph D.R. OLeary has had a long career designing artists catalogs, books and directing photo shoots. His full-service design studio Veto Design has a variety of cultural, arts, and educational organizations and institutions, as clients including the Walker Art Center, the San Francisco Symphony, Northern Clay Center and Highpoint Center for Printmaking.
“Design and photography seem to pour out of me,” says Joe, “Thankfully, I haven’t had strike a balance between business and art because I’ve been able to do what I love and have been blessed with the ability to do it in order to provide a sustainable and satisfying life.”
Joe is now planning to self-publish Of Beards and Men as a handsomely designed and exquisitely printed coffee table/artist book. The book is going to contain essays by George Slade and Douglas Beasley. Sometime in May (2013) he will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to generate money for the printing of the book. Joe’s plan is to print it locally for personal/political/moral reasons as well as being able to oversee every step of the printing, binding and foil stamping process. Again, every detail will be meticulously considered in the design, printing, and production.
For us, as viewers, Of Beards and Men, and the meticulous way it was created, can give us a greater appreciation and may help us keep beards “in fashion” and “in favor” for a few more years.