Columbus artist’s book puts fuzz in focus

Andrew Joyer of Lino Lakes had a sitting with Joseph OLeary in October. Joyer said he chose a few garden tools to show his personality, as he is a farmer and feels passionate about his connection with the land. (Photos submitted)
Andrew Joyer of Lino Lakes had a sitting with Joseph OLeary in October. Joyer said he chose a few garden tools to show his personality, as he is a farmer and feels passionate about his connection with the land. (Photos submitted)

Joseph OLeary explores masculinity through portraits of bearded men

Ariana Babcock
Times Intern

Most photographers enjoy capturing beautiful scenery, unique objects and foreign places, but when Joseph D.R. OLeary picks up a camera, he looks for bearded men.

The 44-year-old has photographed 135 men with beards and mustaches to create a coffee-table book. He hopes to show that masculinity is a personal style choice and a granted freedom.

The Columbus man grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and moved to Minneapolis in 1989. He earned a degree in graphic design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1992.


After graduation he opened his own graphic design studio, Veto Design, and created artist catalogs and books. In 2005, he turned a hobby farm in Columbus into a studio, where, in addition to graphic design, he explores art and self-portrait photography.

OLeary launched the book project in February 2012, inspired for portraiture by a realization of the prominence of beards on significant historical figures. OLeary points out Abraham Lincoln, Socrates and Jesus, to name a few.

“Today, the perception is that beards are relegated to men who are on the fringes … artists, musicians, men who want to rebel against the norm,” he said. “In a way, I want to dispel the perception that beards are for the fringes of society and really (show they) are just another way to express yourself.”

OLeary fell in love with art around the age of 5, when his mother took classes. When he was 11, he got his first camera and began to explore photography by making elaborate Christmas cards in a dark room he and his father built in their basement.

When OLeary steered from his day-to-day work and started the “Of Beards and Men” project, he wasn’t sure what direction to take it or even what types of photographs he wanted. However, the original 45-minute portrait sittings soon turned into sessions that lasted four to six hours as he became interested in telling each man’s story.

“The work got better and my conversations got longer with the people I was photographing,” OLeary said. “I really wanted to get to know them; I didn’t want to just snap a couple pictures and send them on their way. I realized all of these people have something to say.”

With the project’s focus locked in, OLeary used Kickstarter, an online company that helps entrepreneurs fund creative projects, to market the book. A 30-day campaign, which ends Aug. 15, has surpassed his goal of raising $27,000. All of the money will go toward printing the book.

“Kickstarter is great because it gets the word out that you’re doing this and people can preorder the product,” he said.

By November, 1,000 copies will be printed of the 168-page book containing 135 portraits, three essays, an artist’s statement and a short biography for each model. Every image will be spot varnished and printed on matte paper. Each backer who pledges $65 or more receives the book, a postcard and an acknowledgement in the book.

OLeary was taking a risk when he nervously hit the launch button on Kickstarter, realizing his work would be for naught if his project did not reach the funding goal.

“Kickstarter is all or nothing … you have a date and a dollar goal and you have to meet the dollar goal on that date or nothing happens,” OLeary said.

On display

Another obstacle was finding models. OLeary did so by placing postcards in gyms, stores, restaurants and coffee shops throughout the Twin Cities metro area. The cards posed an interesting question: “Is your beard ready for its close-up?”

OLeary’s free portrait sittings were first-come, first-served. Interested participants simply took a snapshot of their facial hair and contacted OLeary.

“It really was about keeping the whole process organic,” OLeary said. “I didn’t want to hand-select, but rather I wanted to keep it totally random and see who would come to me, hear their story and let them step up to the plate.”

The portraits are lightly enhanced to showcase certain details of each model. Participants brought props and outfits to portray their unique characteristics.

“There’s a story to them and I want the photographs to tell that story,” OLeary said.

Columbus graphic artist Joseph D.R. OLeary photographed 135 men for his coffee table book, "Of Beards and Men."
Columbus graphic artist Joseph D.R. OLeary photographed 135 men for his coffee table book, “Of Beards and Men.”

Models came from as far as Dallas and Washington, D.C., Some of the men had worked as nude art models while others have never set foot in front of a camera for a professional portrait.

OLeary at first took close-ups, but as the project progressed he realized full-body shots better showcased the men’s personalities.

“It started off as a way for men to give their beard the spotlight, but what really took place is the man behind the beard took center stage,” OLeary said.

Andrew Joyer, a 2011 Forest Lake High School graduate, became involved in October. He heard about the project through the Minneapolis Beard and Mustache Club online and then ran into OLeary at a club function in Minneapolis.

“I realized that this was for real and could be a lot of fun,” Joyer said. “I told him that my mustache wasn’t ready but when it was I would let him know.”

As his mustache grew, Joyer became excited and eventually jumped at the chance for a sitting.

“If I had any idea of how great a photographer Joseph OLeary was, I would not have hesitated for as long as I did,” Joyer said. “After my session, I wanted everyone I knew with a beard to get the chance.”

Joyer talked all four of his brothers – Matthew, Douglas, Joseph and Brian – into modeling for the project, as well as several close friends.

“How often do we look at portraits of our ancestors and wonder about them, who they were, what they thought?” Joyer said. “Someday people will have the opportunity to wonder those same things while paging through this book.”

Taking off

Vicki Goldberg, New York Times photography writer, was also impressed with OLeary’s project and selected him to be featured with three other artists at an exhibition at the Kiernan Art Gallery in Lexington, Va., in July. OLeary is also on exhibit at the Drift Contemporary Art Gallery in Portsmouth, N.H., through Aug. 18. In addition, one of his portraits will be in the Minnesota State Fair fine art exhibit.

OLeary’s project has caught the attention of many publications, including The Huffington Post, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Peta Pixel. The publicity has helped his project gain popularity, and pledges, from all over the world.

OLeary has completed the photography for the book and is weighing printing options. He continues to take portraits for the project’s online gallery and is hoping to make a second book, also focusing on bearded men.

“I want to keep it all going,” he said. “I want to continue doing design, I want to continue doing photography, and I want to continue photographing bearded men.”

Within the next couple of months, the project will be featured in an Israeli photography magazine and a Spanish architecture and design magazine.

“I never dreamt of it turning into something like this,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Besides the creative challenge of the photo sessions, OLeary has appreciated the relationships and connections he has made with each man that comes to his studio.

“I’m really enjoying meeting all these people,” he said. “There’s such camaraderie with men that have been part of this project.”

OLeary is marketing the book primarily through the project’s website and hopes to possibly sell it at independent shops as well.

While facial hair links the men involved, the project evolved into something deeper, OLeary said. He hopes his book acts as a visual record of masculinity for future generations to enjoy; a type of time capsule, circa 2013.

“The beard is really so secondary and it’s really about these men, who they are, how they define themselves, and how they define masculinity for themselves,” OLeary said. “It’s up to everybody to define it themselves.”

Those interested in being featured in Joseph D.R. OLeary’s second book or on his website should send their picture and phone number to him at [email protected]