Book Review: Federal Triangle
The world is not black and white. Not in law, politics, morality, or government. It may not seem like it at times, but color shapes everything that we value in our society. Color engages ideas of modernity as opposed to the historical connotations that come with black and white images. When we think of societies without culture or vibrancy, and of strict governmental regimes, we likely imagine places stuck living in the past without color. Lifeless and bland. One would find it hard to paint their own community or social system with the same black and white paintbrush that they use in imagining the other or one from years previous. Mike Osborne’s new book, Federal Triangle, however, is in black and white. The book photographs the titular cluster of city and federal office buildings that lie between the White House and the Capitol. A ‘bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle’, as Osborne put it.
His images in this collection contemplate notions of power, surveillance, government and politics through a stark, monochromatic lense. Osborne subverts the idea of the historical image being black and white by photographing the present in this light. The viewer is forced to remind themselves that they are actually being shown the American capital today. This amplifies a historical sense of secrecy, paranoia and totalitarianism through his photographs. With this, Osborne evokes deep contemplation in how we view the people and the systems in charge of our lives. The powers that be and the suits behind the scenes.
Federal Triangle is not the most attractive book on a shelf. Its hard, cardboard-like cover and structure reminds one of concrete walls and brown envelopes containing official documents. One feels like they’ve got a folder holding files bound to secrecy in their hands. Hidden within the front cover’s scrambles of code lie the title, hinting at the level of secrecy involved in today’s politics. The truth is often shrouded in ineligible distractions that keep the public from asking questions.
Despite Osborne’s frequently ominous snapshots of empty yet foreboding monuments and buildings, which paint the government buildings more like fortresses, there is also a level absurdity to be found throughout the book. He exposes the irony in the significance we give to our systems of power, when in reality it’s still just ordinary people in charge of unordinary situations. We are shown how false the meaning we give to our systems of control can be.
The diversity of the subject matter in Federal Triangle spans forests, selfie-sticks, bureaucrats and suburban households. Although seemingly scattered aimlessly throughout the book, Osborne is for sure telling a story through his images. There is emptiness in the chaotic hustle and bustle of diplomacy, and there are eyes everywhere. Whether through the windshield of a Chevrolet Suburban, a hive of security cameras, or even an iPhone, the panoptic gaze of the system bears down on everyone. Fuelled by us all. Resistance may seem futile but Osborne is showing us that we enable this state of affairs through our misguided trust. His final three photographs end the book superbly. A lit-up ‘Republic’ shining through the trees, the crowds of the everyday civilians— us— at the Lincoln Memorial, and finally Dick Cheney’s residence blanketed in snow. Isolated and secure, blocked off from the rest of the world. Lonely and cold. Maybe he’s gone to his beach house.