You can tell a lot about a person from their desk—at least that’s the lesson photographer Tim Davis came away with. Davis, who is known for his fine art photography series in the books Lots and My Life in Politics, shows the subtle contradictions between the superficial and the meaningful. In this commission for TIME, he gives us a peek into the controlled and quirky behind-the-scenes world of American politics.

Like any artwork, these pictures take a moment for the meaning to set in. What state secrets might former Defense Secretary Robert Gates jot down on his blank notepad, red digital clocks bearing the global times zones reflected on the desk below? And is President Barack Obama in the photo in Rep. Barney Franks’ office smiling bemusedly at the Congressman’s impressive collection of glass awards? What do the native American Indian totem and the “USELESS” stamp tossed on his desk tell us about former Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike McMullen? And I like the fact that I could tell before I read the captions that SEC chairwoman Mary Shapiro’s desk belonged to a woman. What man would bother to have flowers on his desk or pastel candies on the table?

To the casual observer, the desks tell stories of patriotism and irony, humor and gravity. To those of us who know them well, the desks tell us a little more.

Some of the scenes look a little contrived. Take Senator Tom Coburn’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington DVD on his desk. Coburn is retiring after this term and has been a Republican maverick of late, taking on his own party on taxes and deficits. Perhaps he’s drawing inspiration from the famous film? Perhaps he just wants us to think he is? And how long has the inspirational post-it on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s desk—“a faithful friend in the medicine of life”—been there? And does he always have a giant tome of his “Accomplishments” laying about? Rep. Barney Frank’s desk looks like a museum. He couldn’t possibly use that antiquated typewriter, especially with a painting leaning atop it. Which begs the question: where does he do his work?

“I’d say of all the offices I visited, only one—Barney Frank’s—felt like an actual working desk, found in flagrante politics,” Davis says. “The rest of the desks were there for show, as objects of portent or as displays arranged by handlers and PR people. I am sure Barney Frank’s desk is exactly what the editors at TIME were thinking of when they came up with this project. It was messy, exuberant, colorful and needed the skills of an archaeologist to decipher.”

I found a few of the desks more interesting for what’s not there than what’s there. I know for a fact that House Speaker John Boehner smokes regularly in his office and yet all evidence of ashtrays or cigarettes has been removed. And Mike Allen, Politico’s senior White House Correspondent, kept famously messy desks at the Washington Post and here at TIME. I’m impressed he’s, ehrm, found neatness late in life.

While you can tell a lot about a person from their desks, you can tell even more about someone on how they handle their desk being photographed. My favorite lesson from the series? That Rep. Michele Bachmann didn’t seem to get that the essay was about her desk, not her. So she’s the only member photographed with her desk.

Tim Davis is a photographer based in New York. His work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and The Walker Art Center, among many others. He is represented by Greenberg van Doren Gallery in New York City and also teaches at Bard college. See more of his work here.

Jay Newton-Small is the congressional correspondent for TIME. Follow her on Twitter at @JNSmall.

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