Erin O’Neill has lived her life with the bold colors and nuanced textures that, even if she had not created art pieces, could be viewed as living art — an impressive three-dimensional tapestry woven year-to-year by following her personal artistic impulses.
As a teenager in Houston, O’Neill had a regular Friday news segment at the same network affiliate where Dan Rather was working. Later in New York, O’Neill was a fashion runway model, travelling the world for fashion shoots. O’Neill said she became more fascinated with what was happening on the side of the runway or shoots where the cameras were. She bought a secondhand Nikon F and began taking pictures.
“Right from the beginning I was an outdoor photographer,” she said. She said she learned how to shoot in the moment when a neighbor, a stringer for the New York Times, asked her to come with him to take pictures. “It could be accidents, crime, events, anything,” she remembered. “I went with my camera. I was shooting in black and white and it was the first time I ever got paid as a photographer.”
While she continued as a model and occasional newspaper photographer, she took classes at the New School intending to get into broadcast journalism — to get back into television and do TV news. “I was doing some voice work trying to get into broadcasting and out of modeling,” she said. In 1974, she came to Los Angeles and worked in radio as an on air personality and doing voice-overs.
Photography didn’t become a career until, after returning to California, she and a friend founded a dive company, Morgan O’Neill Underwater Services, and underwater photographs became part of their teaching approach. O’Neill had been taking underwater photos of marine life, writing articles, and submitting articles and photos to marine biology journals. “At that time, marine biology had been taught mostly using dead fish, not photographs of fish in their natural settings,” she said. “It was before the development of underwater strobes and we actually had to take specially designed underwater flashbulbs in order to have the light necessary to film the fish.”
With the arrival of underwater strobes and digital cameras, underwater photography began to blossom and O’Neill began to shoot more photographs in many parts of the world. Asked if she thought of herself as an artist at that time, she demurred. “Because of my New York background, I thought of myself as a documentarian. I wasn’t printing my photographs as art,” she said. But with digital technology and the enhanced ability to light background, with close focus and wide angle, O’Neill’s photographs began to change. “The lighting had to be perfect but the results could be very dramatic,” she said.
Even as she continued to develop as an underwater photographer, she continued other specialty activities as a result of her diving expertise. “Because I was such a good water person, I worked in the film industry when water and underwater expertise was required. I helped train Daryl Hannah in ‘Splash,’ and helped designers test tails for the mermaid.” She said the tails had to be neutrally buoyant.
She closed her dive business when she and husband Bob Beck moved to Idyllwild in 1997. Even though she continues to dive and photograph, as evidenced by one of the accompanying photos from a recent dive trip to Cuba, she shifted focus to landscape and wildlife photography after the move to the mountains. “Here this surfer guy became such a mountain man and it influenced all I did,” she remembered. “My life with Bob became such an important part of my photography interest, shifting to flowers, landscapes and wildlife. It is now such an important part of my career.”
In 2000, O’Neill was elected to the inaugural class of the Women Divers Hall of Fame. Her art, no longer just documenting a scene or event, but photography that is both exquisitely beautiful, moving and a tribute to the creatures of this planet, is featured on her website, www.erinoneillphotography.com. “I have mountains of my work from the time I was shooting film that I hope to convert into digital format and get onto my website,” she said.
On Saturday, O’Neill won second prize in the photography category for her black and white study of kelp, “Pirouette,” at AAI’s Eye of the Artist event.
She has long been involved in Idyllwild supporting a variety of nonprofit projects. Given the breadth and many facets of her career journey, it is not difficult to characterize her progression as an artist as life lived as art.