Review: 'Hard Ground' by Michael O'Brien, Tom Waits shows homeless people in the round

Hard Ground, a coffee-table volume by a great photographer and great songwriter, reminds me of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the haunting collaboration between Walker Evans and James Agee about desperately poor sharecropping farmers in the Depression South, published in 1941.

In their new book, Michael O'Brien and Tom Waits use their considerable gifts to illuminate the Americans many of us try to ignore in the 21st century — the homeless men and women who sleep in our parks and sometimes beg for pocket change on our street corners.

Daddy why are all those men

Sleeping outside in the rain?

Why don't they go home

Where it is warm and dry?

Why don't they all go home

Where it is dry?

So goes one of 25 poems Waits wrote to accompany O'Brien's stark photographs. They're black-and-white Polaroids of the folks the well-fed pundits often assail as "losers." In the hands of these two artists the street people captured in this book glow with humanity. It's not that they are celebrated as noble. Waits and O'Brien don't take sides. They're just shown as real people.

Some drink and some don't, some have mental problems and some don't. Some want jobs, some don't. Some have dreams. Some have given up. Some want to leave the streets. Some are okay sleeping in a cardboard box.

Did I have it once and

Lose it lose it

Or did I look it in the eye

And choose it

Choose it.

Waits, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has always written in the voices of outsiders and underdogs during his long career. O'Brien has freelanced for National Geographic, Life, Esquire and the New York Times, but he got his start nearly four decades ago in Florida, at the Miami News, a little afternoon newspaper that is no more.

I also was a kid journalist at that failing paper, which is where Michael and I became friends. A straw-haired Southerner fresh out of college, he was quiet, compassionate and determined to capture in his work the underside of that glamorous palm-lined city.

Hurrying to an assignment one day, he stopped at a downtown traffic light and saw a homeless man sitting on a nearby drain pipe.

"(T)his man's face was like no other," O'Brien writes in his introduction. "Grizzled and burnt by the searing South Florida sun, the grit was baked deep into his skin. He had dark plaintive eyes that caught mine. I looked away; I didn't want to be caught staring."

But stare he did. And, over the following months, he pointed his Nikon again and again, photographing homeless John Madden asleep on an ocean of empty whiskey bottles, lighting a cigarette, combing his filthy hair, walking defiantly out of jail and finally lying dead in a flag-draped coffin. Before he was a homeless drunk, he had been a soldier who served his country. He'd had a mother who loved him, four beautiful sisters, a wife, three daughters. Then he developed a taste for cheap whiskey.

Those photographs are in the book.

Homeless

Toothless

Spineless

Ruthless

Down for the count

And the ref is on 9

When am I going to

Get mine boys

When am I going to

Get Mine

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Hard Ground

Photographs by Michael O'Brien, poems by Tom Waits

University of Texas Press, Austin, 184 pages, $40

Review: 'Hard Ground' by Michael O'Brien, Tom Waits shows homeless people in the round 04/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 7:02pm]

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