A jostle of men in suits hold up their phones to photograph something beyond a metal fence, something we can’t see. A protestor’s sign, seen from behind, is blank of any urgent message. A workman drags a heavy duty hose up the steps of the Supreme Court building.
Meticulous and enigmatic, Mike Osborne’s photographs in “Federal Triangle” refuse to reveal everything to us. Capturing scenes around Washington D.C., the photographs have an uneasy stillness, a latent anxiety to them that speak to our current political climate and uneasy times.
The series is titled after a triangular area of government buildings that is situated between the United States Capitol and the White House. His photographic series is, Osborne says, “a para-paranoid reflection on the center of American political life”
This summer a selection of “Federal Triangle” is on exhibition at Austin’s Lora Reynolds Gallery through Aug. 31. And Gnomic Book has recently released a book with 70 images from the series, a minimally presented volume with, refreshingly, no essay or text — room for us to insert our imaginations.
Osborne now lives and works in Austin, where he received a MFA from the University of Texas in 2006. After graduate school, however, he resided in the District of Columbia for several years and taught at Georgetown University.
To Osborne Washington D.C. seemed “a kind of bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle — an impenetrable place of mystery, danger, and disorientation.”
“When I first arrived, brief encounters with the trappings of power became a point of fascination. Like extras in a film, men with earpieces gathered on corners next to cars bearing diplomatic plates. Black Suburbans idled in the alleys behind Georgetown mansions. Gardeners received TSA-style inspections before entering walled compounds.”
But it was only after he moved back to Austin that Osborne began work on the “Federal Triangle” series, returning to D.C. as a visitor for concentrated periods of shooting.
“I never shoot where I live,” he says.
Osborne read Washington D.C. as a series of banal yet intriguing scenes of political power, viewed from the remove that security measures set. The city’s inscrutability raised questions for him. “If I were particularly prone to paranoid projections, what kinds of encounters might activate my darker conspiratorial fears and fantasies? If I felt especially dispossessed, what scenes and situations would evoke the paradoxical feeling of being close to yet far removed from the levers of power?”
Osborne made his pictures in order to engage those questions on his own pictorial terms.
“Everyday scenes are tinged with the possibility of violence and conspiracy,” says. “Withholding more than they reveal, the pictures invite projections that speak to the pictures invite projections that speak to the fear, doubt, dysfunction, and absurdity of the current moment in American political life.”
Photographing in a city so rife with paranoia, it’s perhaps not surprising that Osborne found himself the object of security scrutiny. After shooting near Reagan Airport, he was packing up his equipment when two camouflaged security guards appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
“(They asked me) ‘Did I realize I was on government property? That my car, sufficiently packed with explosives, could have brought the neighboring Marriott toppling down onto their building?,'” Osborne says. “I had not realized these things. Before we parted ways, one of them noted that there were other, less generous security officers out there. Some guys who worked on the roof of the Pentagon, not far away, were very uptight and very sorry they never had an opportunity to use their weapons.”
Interestingly, CBS reporters had no problem with Osborne photographing the inside of their equipment-laden production van while it was parked outside the Obama’s Kalorama Heights home.
Osborne set many of his pictures in well-known places — the Pentagon, the steps of the Supreme Court, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall — sites where political celebrations happen and also where protests erupts. Places where news events occur. But any action is largely absent from Osborne’s images. We see a smashed window of a Starbucks, but not the protest or the violence the led to the window being smashed.
Says Osborne: “The scenes are quiet, absent the fracas that feeds our media, but they are never free of tension. Their provocations lie in what is indiscernible or begs to be misread, what is unseen or absent, in what came before or after.”