Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

White Vans & Black Suburbans

Jun 06, 2019 - Mike Osborne

The actual DC and its representations on film and in the media are engaged in a kind of feedback loop, each informing the other ad infinitum. In its motifs and visual language, Federal Triangle draws on this representational ouroboros.


Federal Triangle’s original working title was White Vans & Black Suburbans. The provisional title referenced the monochromatic palette, which I had not used for many years, and provided a shorthand for the kinds of issues that I wanted to conjure: banality, secrecy, surveillance, power, and violence.


The white van is especially intriguing. It is iconic, but iconic of what? In DC, it is ubiquitous, the default vehicle of tradespeople and ordinary government services. Decked out with communications equipment, it is a mobile tv news studio. The white van also inevitably conjures the Hollywood trope of “spies in a van” — Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974). It also suggests the possibility of violence, real and imagined. In 2002, as DC snipers John Lee and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the area, DC officials erroneously warned residents to keep an eye out for a suspicious white van or truck. (The snipers were later arrested in a blue Chevy Caprice.) The white van is also frequently weaponized on film. In Arlington Road (1999), a white van marked “Liberty Worldwide Delivery Service” is part of a byzantine plot to destroy FBI headquarters.


The black Suburban has a narrower but no less provocative range of significations. A black Suburban is an expensive Uber ride. It is also a literal blackbox on wheels, the vehicle in which power circulates through the city. In life and on film, it is also a stand-in for the security state and the intelligence community. Like the white van, the black Suburban is no stranger to mayhem. In the climactic scene of White House Down (2013), Channing Tatum crashes one through the walls of the Oval Office in the process of thwarting a coup.