In Brink (Punctum Press, 2022), photojournalist David Butow captures many critical tableaux in a visual dissection of the US political system between 2015 and 2021. There are flags and red MAGA hats, of course, and blue buttons with Hillary Clinton’s “H” logo. There are political rallies and candid portraits of the period’s most iconic and influential players — Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Roger Stone, and James Comey. There are panoramic views of the Senate floor, packed with camera techs and reporters as testimony unfolded from Robert Mueller, Mark Zuckerberg, and Brett Kavanaugh. There are Trump rallies, Antifa rallies, George Floyd protests, pro-gun demonstrators. Riot police defending statues, defending rally perimeters, being overrun as the Capitol is stormed by rioters attempting to overturn the 2020 election results. All this is dramatic, but it is also what one would expect in a survey of our turbulent recent chapter in US politics.
What is more interesting is Butow’s decision to include, for example, an abandoned factory in Ohio, glimpsed through a window that reflects back a room holding a row of plastic chairs, a gumball machine. A darkened streetscape with a flagpole in front of a dress store, lit from within to feature a row of formal dresses in red and white. A moody sunrise over Benton Harbor, Michigan. Images like these appear mostly in the “Act I” section of the book, but they illustrate Butow’s point that the current political climate is not a reflection of even the highest-profile individual players, but of conditions on the ground that have been fermenting for some time.
As we move through Act II, the focus becomes more specific to the unprecedented politics unfolding in the Capitol — more Trumpian content, more Senate hearings, more wide shots that intentionally highlight the sheer preponderance of media coverage attendant to all these proceedings — but there are still quiet moments, like indistinct rows of men and women, framed from the knees down, capturing legs identically crossed, hands identically folded. They are there watching, and therefore complicit extras in the staging of these political plays.
No one is smiling in these pictures. There is gravity, anxiety, anger, but no happiness and no levity. A quiet moment as an indistinct security guard patrols a hallway of the Capitol building is about the best respite we’ll see in Act III, as the profusion of masks hint at the pandemic gathering steam. On the left, Donald Trump, entering a press conference looking grim; on the right, Dr. Fauci already smiling with limited optimism for the cameras. The identical high-polish brown oxfords of the Fauci entourage, the black military boots of the four-star general at his right. Mourners at the funeral of Senator John Lewis.
Brink is not a fun book, and it shouldn’t be. It is a reckoning, and one that takes points on all sides of the aisle, into the press box, and out to the streets. The images are expertly captured, geared toward the dizzying contradictions and juxtapositions and peculiarities about political life in the last seven years, as well as the intimate moments of various citizens as they engage with the system that surrounds them. It is the kind of book I imagine reaching for, in a hopefully less contentious and more just future, to illustrate for a new generation just how bad things got in this country. As the title suggests, we are at the edge of something, and looking through these pages serves as a concise reminder that the brink is just the beginning.