Photographer David Butow’s new book, “Brink” (Punctum, 2021), takes a look at the media circus that gripped the nation for four years under the Trump administration. Politics is always a circus, full of all kinds of over-the-top pageantry. To be sure, that circus wasn’t started by the last administration, it just mushroomed to a level we hadn’t seen before. The time between 2016 and 2021 was especially interesting in both American politics and American life. And the ramifications of that time have not subsided, but continue to send shock waves through our lives here in the United States.
The power of “Brink” comes from Butow’s focus not just on the political pageantry of Washington, but on the people affected by that pageantry, away from the halls of Capitol Hill. It’s also a deeply personal examination of the people, places and things that made up this time of upheaval.
Long before I ever sat at a desk and edited photos I spent my time out in the field as a photojournalist. One of the most formative experiences I had during that time was when I interned at U.S. News & World Report way back in 2001. During that period, I spent most of my time trying to report on D.C. politics. That experience gave me a unique insight into how the political photojournalism sausage is made.
In a nutshell, political photography is mostly made up of photos taken in tightly choreographed situations. Everything, even access to where you can stand, is tightly controlled. Most of what we see in political photography isn’t a mistake. Everything is arranged in a way to encourage the kinds of photos that we see all the time, from a head framed by a presidential seal to the people standing behind a politician. It’s all stage-managed.
The best political photography is made with the long view in mind. And this is exactly what underpins Butow’s book. Most of what we see coming from D.C. is from people who are on extremely tight deadlines and don’t have the luxury to take a step back with the long view in mind. Butow wasn’t always photographing on assignment. In fact, he moved to D.C. from California, with the express intention of documenting what would turn out to be the beginning of a sea change in politics.
Butow and I recently had the opportunity to talk about his book and how he approached making it. He made a point of letting me know that one of the driving inspirations he had was the urge to step back and make photographs that are wider in scope from what you would normally see in political images. Instead of zeroing in and isolating subjects, which is a familiar trope of political news photography, Butow sometimes pulled back, creating tableaux from the situations that unfolded in front of him.
By stepping back, Butow was able to make images that you can dive into and notice a multitude of things taking place — in other words, his photos sometimes afford you the opportunity to take in the various elements underpinning what otherwise might be thought of as the “main event.” This approach strikes me as a fairly successful attempt to subvert the attempt to stage-manage. Butow is trying to draw the curtain back a smidge, hoping to reveal the wizard working behind it.
“Brink” is divided into three “acts” and takes us from the election of Donald Trump through the years of his administration, all the way up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. It is a chronicle of one of the most interesting, unbelievable and turbulent periods in American history.
It might be tempting to brush the events in “Brink” off as some kind of anomaly, but when examining all of it much closer, it does not appear to be. As Cecilia Emma Sottilotta, assistant professor of IR & Global Politics at the American University of Rome, says in the epilogue to “Brink”:
“However shocking, seen from the outside, the events unfolding in Washington DC did not come as such a major surprise. The vulnerability to misinformation generated by a highly uneven public education system, growing inequalities, countless unsolved social justice dilemmas exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, inequitably distributed costs and benefits of technological progress, a dramatic swelling of the ranks of the working poor, a cult of gun ownership combined with sky- rocketing levels of distrust in government: these are only a few of the deep-seated issues that made the events culminating in the siege of the US Capitol painfully understandable in the eyes of the most attentive external observers. ”
The question that Butow’s work in “Brink” inevitably brings us to is what comes next? More of the same? More of the same but worse? Or will we somehow figure out how to tamp down or, better yet, eliminate the conditions that worked together to bring our lives to a boiling point? All signs seem to be pointing to the former rather than the latter. But it is desperately important to keep asking these questions, because nothing is over yet.
I’d like to leave you with Butow’s own words:
“Why make a book of photographs from events that overwhelmed many of us in the last four years? We lived through history minute by minute, so much so that the gravitas of what transpired is apparent only when you step back and see how the whole saga unfolded. As revisionists seek to trivialize or downplay these events, it’s critical to maintain a record of just how close the presidency of Donald Trump brought U.S. democracy to the brink of dysfunction.”
“Brink” will go down as an essential photographic document of a most unusual time in U.S. politics.
You can see more of Butow’s work on his website, here, where you can find out more about the book and how to buy it here..
You can also see comprehensive coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection in this series published by The Washington Post.
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