In O’Leary’s recent photography book, “Record,” she depicts not the high-saturation drama of the political arena, but the “muted purpose” of federal buildings and the unnamed and unnoticed workers who fill them. Her photos are subdued not just in color, but also in mood, showing fragments of government structures up close — an anonymous window, a column’s base, a bucolic vent, a fossil-like handrail — with an enchanting, surprising quietude. In a capital city built to be iconic and singular, her images capture the poetry in the replaceable.
Much like government itself, the structures in O’Leary’s photographs don’t appear in their entirety: Walls, columns, steps lead out of the frame. The places she focuses on — the Departments of Justice, Agriculture and Interior; office exteriors in McPherson Square and Federal Triangle — escape easy recognition, yet they have a sense of familiarity, as if seen through the eye of a longtime employee passing through.
While “Record” is meant as an homage to the civil servants who make the federal government hum (and sometimes sputter), they remain physically absent. Instead, they appear in impressions: in a pair of empty chairs spotted through a window; in long, paneled curtains falling slightly open; in a broom propped against a stone wall. Civil servants are at work in her images in the same way they are at work in federal buildings across the country — invisibly but consistently.
O’Leary’s photos have the poignancy of Edward Hopper’s emotionally charged paintings, but without the people. Here, there is only the atmosphere — the impression of someone who once was and will return.
A D.C. native, O’Leary, 56, first encountered the aesthetics of government through her father, Thomas F. O’Leary, who worked at the State Department and the Atomic Energy Commission (a precursor to the Department of Energy) in the late 1960s and ’70s. He died when she was just 12, but she recalls the pride he had in his work and a “whiff of greatest generation attitude.” As a child, she once visited him at the AEC building in Germantown, Md., and was mesmerized by the quiet busyness of the office.
In high school, O’Leary did secretarial work at the Pentagon, where she developed an affinity for clerical record books and other bureaucratic items. This fondness appears in her photos of a file cabinet and a water fountain. Their dents, scuffs and scratches appear like wrinkles in a well-done portrait, delicately drawn by time, evidence of wisdom and durability rather than decline.
“They have a great sense of permanence to them,” O’Leary says of such objects. “It’s not about the design. It’s about practicality, repetition, commonness.”
Through her lens, one nondescript window among hundreds is as worthy of attention as any sight you’d find on a postcard. For O’Leary, even in the ordinary, there is something to be imagined, indulged.
“I love looking into the windows of federal buildings,” she says. “I’ll see a small light on and wonder what that person is doing or who they are.”
After moving away to attend Yale University, O’Leary returned to Washington during the height of the punk rock scene and spent the late 1980s and ’90s working in a studio above the music venue D.C. Space that she had rented for $25 a month. In those days, the city seemed empty.
“You felt like you had all those buildings to yourself,” she recalls, “so you could walk around and really take in the architecture with a lot of space to reflect.”
Even as the city has grown and commercialized, the photos — shot over the past five years — carry a meditative, pastoral quality. The golden underbelly of a bridge near the Smithsonian Metro station has the unbridled, reaching shine of a sunrise. A shuttered window appears as expansive as the blue it reflects. A room glows with fluorescent light of the same hue as a yellowed, overcast sky after a storm.
O’Leary got the idea for “Record” while working above D.C. Space, which closed in 1991, but the meditative book reflects its punk-rock-era origins only insofar as it goes against the grain.
“Sometimes you get a feeling that a lot of people are working on a picture of something,” the photographer says. “I didn’t sense that a lot of people were having a conversation in their work about whether you could fall in love with the federal government.”
She positions the work against the irony and sarcasm of today’s art world. Her sincerity is most evident when she captures signs of decay. The rust on a handrail, scuff marks on glass, dents on a door — they have an intentionality — as if they were made by hand. And in a way, they were — carved by reliable use day in and day out.
Of course, these gentle depictions of government could be read as Pollyannish. For O’Leary, though, “Record” isn’t about big questions, nor is it an endorsement of blind-faith civic pride. It’s about the daily churn of the ordinary, an ode to the bits and pieces of government that you can see and touch.
“Some of these buildings, of course, are amazing architectural masterpieces, but they also feel very approachable,” O’Leary says. “I think [my dad] may have infused some of that feeling. There was a sense that it’s not just a beautiful place, it’s also yours in a way.”