Love Valley : Photography of Michaela O’Brien in Durham, NC

Michaela O’Brien is a documentary artist, photographer, and filmmaker currently based in Durham, NC. She holds an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University and a BA in Sociology and International Studies from Boston College. Her work includes independent documentaries for broadcast, award-winning audiovisual installations, client-based archival research, and interactive videos for a variety of acclaimed museums. Her photographic and moving images works have been featured in galleries and film festivals worldwide. She is currently teaching in the department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University and is a Teaching for Equity Fellow in the Duke Human Rights Center in the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.

O’Brien’s work has been featured in Southern Cultures Magazine, Aint Bad Magazine, The Oxford American, The Almanac Gallery, The Piano Factory Gallery, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Photowerk Berlin and screened at Antimatter [media art], DOCNYC, 25th Film Festival of Madrid, International Disability and Health Film Festival, and Slamdance Film Festival.

Project Statement - Love Valley : Love Valley is currently listed on Visit North Carolina’s tourism website under the “quirky” section of “Things To Do.” Nestled in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains, the township, founded in 1954, allows only horse and foot traffic on its Main Street, a dirt road lined with less than a dozen buildings of rough hewn timber made to look a century old. This scene, that brings to mind a John Wayne movie, also conjures an eerie ghostliness at quieter times of day.

Founder Andy Barker’s boyhood dream of a cowboy haven is home to a population which hovers at about 100 people. Ellenora, his now 94-year-old Alzheimic widow, preserves a record of his utopian aspirations in a rarely accessed, dusty, wood-planked room where cabinets are filled with reels of film, medium and large format photographic negatives and piles of Scrapbooks.

In this 0.2 square mile community, reenactment forms an important aspect of social life even as nostalgia contends with everyday realities. Residents attempt to shape and reshape the township around their founder’s vision of a Western town full of “good, clean fun.” In Love Valley, men, women, children, and animals each tussle for a place somewhere between an idealized past and an elusive future.

My time living on Main Street resulted in this fragmented narrative of frontier freedom. This assemblage is an oblique museum, an impulse to document, and a document of that impulse. In Love Valley, the complete story is eschewed for the remains: a constellation of biblical and patriotic gestures, and what lies at the heart of it all, the desire to start over.

Influences, preferences, etc. : I’m sure I have many influences that I don’t even realize, they pass me by every day. I prefer things a little messy and unrefined. The making of things is hardly ever an option. I use my mother’s 35mm Pentax and my grandfather’s 35mm Nikon. I also have taken to mirrorless, full-frame digital cameras and have started experimenting with 4×5 once again.

Michaela O’Brien : Instagram