Mike Osborne, Federal Triangle

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Gnomic Book (here). Cloth-bound with cardboard covers, 144 pages, with 70 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The cover of Mike Osborne’s photobook Federal Triangle is a sea of capital letters and symbols. Two forward slashes help us to find the two words of the title hidden in the array, but the author’s name isn’t so easily found. Doing some quick word search up, down, diagonal, and backwards checks, I couldn’t find it, but I did uncover the words vault, shade, and gaze. Perhaps it is encoded in some way, replaced or restructured with some cleverness beyond the abilities of my rudimentary codebreaking. But it seems like it must be there somewhere, right? Or maybe I am just imagining things?

This deliberate ambiguity sits at the heart of Osborne’s body of work. His black and white photographs document seemingly murky goings on in Washington D.C., particularly in the area between the Capitol and the White House known as the Federal Triangle, with a focus on the power alleys of politics and government. Steeped in a mood of anxiety and paranoia, every picture seems to suggest the dark underbelly of something sinister, playing with the possibility that such plots and alternate realities really might exist. His images are filled with watching and surveillance (both overt and covert), but his evidence is consistently open-ended and inconclusive – the photographs may indeed capture fragments of conspiracies and dark fears (we’ll never know), or maybe just nothing much at all.

The core of Osborne’s narrative lies in the motif of anonymous looking vehicles – white vans, black Suburbans, and other nondescript cars and trucks that linger around town. Parked in front of an important building or idling on a street corner, they suddenly become the potential stage for spycraft and other nefarious doings. And once we fall down that rabbit hole of thinking the world is out to get us, everything starts to look mysterious. A hand holds up a blank sign – is it a signal? Two men appear ready to brush past each other and exchange a briefcase and a file folder – what’s inside? A puzzling box sitting on the sidewalk is marked with X – what does it mean and who is it for? With each page turn, Osborne pulls us further into this wary world of unease and anxiety.

Some of Osborne’s strongest photographs document seemingly innocuous situations that, with a little help from his peek through framing and dark shadowy lighting, we now see with a tint of ominousness or foreboding. A repairman perches on a windowsill, perhaps installing wiring, and we now question his presence and wonder if he is who he appears to be. A building being demolished and a Starbucks with a shattered glass window make us immediately wonder about whether bombs did the damage. Lights at the end of a long driveway at a Russian dacha, a city street blocked by a bus and police cars, a group of flags in the dense woods, a ladder outside an ambassador’s residence, a taxi waiting outside an Islamic center – they all invite us to speculate about dark motives. Even passing contrails in the sky might be fighter jets or drones on the move.

Osborne successfully invests dozens of notable places with an air of doubt. He shows us a man dragging a long wire up the steps of the Supreme Court, the closed shutters of Michael Flynn’s house, Steve Bannon greeting someone on his front stoop, people scurrying out of the Senate subway, a deep tunnel under Dupont Circle, and a long dim hallway in the Hart Senate office building, each infused with an added sense of mystery. Who knows what a single light in an otherwise darkened office complex might mean? And if you weren’t already worried, even the White House has people massing on the roof.

Osborne’s photographs of politicians and staffers are flash-lit even in daylight, creating a furtive “caught” appearance in many. Some stride along earnestly talking on their phones, trying not to look over, and one seems unhappy to have been seen in a phonebooth. In this world, the eyes are everywhere – on billboards, on light poles, peeking out from behind marble walls, on rooftops, behind fences with smartphones, and up in the trees. No wonder so many windows have the blinds pulled closed.

In many ways, this is a project that repeatedly tries to undermine our sense of photographic truth – not in a manipulated or Photoshopped sense, but in the way that we see a photograph and draw conclusions about what it shows us. Osborne’s pictures are repeatedly built on shaky foundations, and we take the bait again and again to see ghosts and evildoers in the shadows. Nearly every picture in the series can be twisted into a conspiracy story, even though what it shows us at face value doesn’t necessarily imply anything out of the ordinary. This where the success of Federal Triangle lies. It repeatedly catches us jumping to increasingly polarized and unrealistic conclusions, like scenes out of a spy thriller, and yet, we can’t seem to help ourselves. Osborne has smartly crafted images that amplify this tension, turning the whole project into a very dark comedy at our own expense. But it’s not paranoia if it’s really happening, right?

Collector’s POV: Mike Osborne is represented by Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas (here). Osborne’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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