(Midwest Center for Photography, 2021)
Details of bureaucratic filing cabinets, austere door knobs, and office windows filtering fluorescent light are dovetailed with scenes of empty park benches, water fountains, and infrastructure bathed in late-afternoon sunlight in Record: A Book of Photographs by Maureen O’Leary. In O’Leary’s new artist book, produced in collaboration with designer Matthew Polhamus, the Long Island-based painter and photographer embeds a degree of tension in each photograph. It is assumed, though not guaranteed, that these mundane government sites—often photographed after hours—will once again be activated by its dedicated, unsung corps of administrators and caretakers. The book’s subjects include public trust; individual versus collective actions; and notions of labor, maintenance, and care. Stewardship not just of the physical structures of government, but the necessary institutional norms, the procedural drudgery, and the sacrosanct systems of democracy.
O’Leary’s compositional framing focuses on architectural details, narrowing in on particular components, such as metal railing, window panes, and building corners. In her short essay she describes this choice as a desire for “the imagery alone to elicit feelings, potentially complex ones, about the ethos of our collective national striving and how it takes physical form.” O’Leary effectively constructs an analogy between seemingly minor building features and the banal, unnoticed proceedings of government—the collective actions of armies of civil servants. Fittingly, the photographs are untitled, like the government workers whose absence in the images is conspicuous. The daughter of a former DC public administrator, O’Leary presents reverential photographs that are meditations on the systems, structures, functions, and duties of government. From initial conception to final execution, the project spanned 10 years (2010–2020), with Washington DC as the primary setting. The 42 square, color photographs have been arranged in facing spreads across 64 pages of a green, linen-bound book, with one image per page. Its linen hardcover design references the government-issued notebooks bestowed to civil servants.
O’Leary envisaged each photograph as a visual note, pictorial jottings that capture what she calls abandoned bureaucratic objects. This diaristic or investigatory aspect brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville’s visits to the United States in the 1830s. The French historian, politician, and political philosopher took scrupulous notes on race problems, the penitentiary system, and the socio-political machinery of the nascent democracy. Later, he published an incisive, four-volume text, Democracy in America (1835–40). In the introduction, Tocqueville states, “In America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions.”1 In a humbler approach, O’Leary also sought the image of democracy, or rather set out to capture democracy at work.
Some of O’Leary’s scenes of slightly derelict government property evoke details from Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, “The Course of Empire” (1833–36), which illustrate his conception of the cyclical stages of civilization, transitioning from pristine marble edifices to crumbling infrastructure and chaos. O’Leary’s photographs of overgrown vegetation in parks also share affinities with the last painting, Desolation (1836). Cole’s message was a warning to ascendant empires to heed the lessons from past civilizations. Where Cole cautioned against greed, corruption, and profligacy, beneath the warm tones and quiet grandeur of her photographs, O’Leary offers a subtle yet clear admonition about besmirching public service and civic trust. The deteriorating features hint at the possibility of ruination, and significantly, point to the role that whistleblowers and watchdogs play in repairing, maintaining, and safeguarding institutions against graft and political corrosion.
In keeping with the project’s conceptual conceit of artist as recorder, it’s worth reflecting on the similarities and differences between artistic and bureaucratic forms of recording. O’Leary’s photographs establish a comparison between the artist as mediator and the government as arbiter. Choices involving lenses, subject, focus, and cropping are akin to decisions about policy priorities, interventionist or protectionist strategies, and resolving legal disputes. Ostensibly, documentation, registration, and transcription are perceived to be objective; however, in both creative and administrative processes, biases and points of view impact the final product. Just as photography is not merely empirical or mechanical documentation, the workings of government and the recording of history are not purely impartial exercises. The polyvalent term, perspective, is key here. Of course, the word speaks to the technical outlook the artist has adopted, but also to ideological perspectives. While the selection of photographs present O’Leary’s point of view, one informed by years of positive interactions with government, others with differing world-views may look upon her assembly of photos and see the vacant tennis courts, fencing, unattended mop, and museum displays in an alternative light. Her photographs press viewers to reflect on their own dealings with government and consider how they might characterize this ambivalent relationship.
Collectively, the individual images form a composite portrait of a deeply ambitious project: American democratic government. Represented not as one might expect, by recognizable landmarks and figures, but through quiet images of government office buildings, parks, and infrastructure projects. In recent years, there has been an unprecedented assault on government institutions—both rhetorically and physically—further eroding public trust in bureaucratic systems, standards, and processes that provide vital services and protections to millions of Americans. The timely release of Record will encourage viewers to contemplate O’Leary’s photographically based journal entries, and examine the relationship between citizen and state at a critical, page-turning juncture in the album of the United States.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, “Introduction,” in Democracy in America (New York: Nova Science Publishers (SNOVA), 2019).