Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

And Then Things Got Weird

A secretary looks down at her typewriter. Five Representatives pose for a photo after being appointed to a conference committee. A man walks down a hallway in an office building. Sure, they may sound like normal events around the House of Representatives. But 20th-century news photographers added an unconventional spin to these moments, creating bizarre and uncanny images.

Bizarre and uncanny were also the watchwords of a 20th century art movement called Surrealism. Surrealist photography, which began after World War I, often incorporated the blurry logic of dreams. Unsettling photographs by artists like Man Ray and Lee Miller invited viewers to question normality and its relationship to the subconscious. Salvador Dalí’s imagery brought fantastical art and photos to a popular audience.

Occasionally, photographers around the Capitol included strange elements that evoked Surrealism. Whether the photogs were students of the movement, by the time their images were published, viewers were familiar enough with the fun-house conventions that they could see these photos as both newsworthy and sophisticated.

Step through the looking glass into the House Collection’s surreal photos of people and spaces.

Dreamscapes

“Miss Persistence”/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-persistence-PA2017_10_0005.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A January 2, 1953, photograph shows an office worker attempting to type a document as painters prepare her office for the new session of Congress. Evelyn Carollo perches on a ladder as she types. Behind her, painters roll and daub paint onto the walls. Drop cloths cover the furniture and much of the floor. Handwritten on the back is a title: “Miss Persistence.” The image takes two routine activities—office work and painting—and combines them in a droll and unusual scene.

Capitol Hill Chaos/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-chaos-PA2015_01_0059.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Another photograph shows three office workers looking for files in all the (seemingly) wrong places. These Government Operations Committee staffers moved into the new Rayburn Building in 1964 before construction of the building was complete.

Glenna Donat, at right, looks in a file drawer, which is propped high on a pile of boxes rather than attached to a file cabinet or desk. Helen Beasley, left, sits in an office chair in the busy hallway. Like “Miss Persistence,” the staffers in this photograph attempt to work in a workspace that is not quite right. These photographs evoke a dreamscape, combining the normal and the odd.

Distortion and Perspective

House Conferees Appointed on Neutrality Bill/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-neutrality-PA2017_11_0012.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Distortion was another Surrealist photo technique occasionally used around the Capitol. A photograph from 1939 shows five Members of Congress: clockwise from top, Charles Eaton of New Jersey, John Kee of West Virginia, Luther Johnson of Texas, Sol Bloom of New York, and Hamilton Fish of New York. The caption explains that the five were to meet with a group of Senators about U.S. neutrality law as war broke out in Europe. The photograph of the Members was taken from below, their faces brightly lit against a dark background. The men loom, almost creepy. Johnson’s and Bloom’s faces don’t fit fully in the frame. Unsurprisingly, this stark, strange photograph looks very different from the typical group photo of Representatives.

Fish-Eye View of the House Chamber from Above/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-fisheye-2009_065_011.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
From a different perspective, a photographer captured opening day of the 94th Congress from above. The camera’s fish-eye lens exaggerates the curve of the benches and makes the galleries look circular rather than rectangular. The lens allows the photographer to capture more of the chamber. However, the resulting photo is distorted and artistic, instead of a practical, documentary image of opening day.

The Nation’s Hub/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-hubcap-PA2015_03_0040.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1939 photograph shows the Capitol reflected in the shiny metal hubcap of a car. Like the fish-eye lens, the rounded hubcap distorts the straight lines of the building. The photograph’s quirky quality comes from the juxtaposition of the historic, imposing, and important Capitol building on the rubber and metal of the car tire.

The Eeriness of Rayburn

Rayburn House Office Building Hallway/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-hallway-PA2022_01_0020.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Photographers couldn’t resist capturing the massive scale and modern interior of the Rayburn Building around the time it opened. One image shows a hallway so long it may never end. The doorways, ceiling tiles, and overhead lights repeat, getting smaller and smaller. Down the hall, a man is so miniscule that he almost can’t be spotted. Because the photograph was taken at a slight angle, rather than straight on, the hallway almost seems to turn, as if the image is cartwheeling to the left.

Rayburn Subway/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-subway-PA2022_06_0005.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
A similar sense of movement and disorientation comes across in a 1965 photo of the Rayburn subway, which connects the office building and the Capitol. Like the repetition in the hallway photo, the curving tracks, overhead lines, and columns along the right side seem unsettling and topsy-turvy.

Rayburn House Office Building Garage/tiles/non-collection/1/1-10-surreal-garage-PA2018_11_0008.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
A third photo of Rayburn, taken late in 1964, shows the garage. Car after shiny car, column upon concrete column, the sprawling garage goes on and on under crosshatched fluorescent lights. The three-level garage, like the hallway and the subway tracks, seems almost endless. At left, a column reads, “EXIT EXIT” in stenciled capital letters. Is the exit truly near, or is the sign taunting lost Members and staffers?

From dreamlike staffers typing on ladders to a fish-eye opening day and the Rayburn labyrinth, photographs have captured surreal scenes around the House. These photographs may even lead viewers to take another look at the congressional scenes presented by routine photos and, perhaps, to see some artifice and oddity beneath the everyday.

Sources: “Photography and Surrealism,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm; “Surrealist Photography,” V&A, accessed 28 September 2022, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/surrealist-photography; “Dalí and the Media,” National Gallery of Victoria, accessed 3 November 2022, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/dali/salvador/media.html.