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FindArticles > Art in America > Jan, 2003 > Article > Print friendly

Paul Shambroom at Julie Saul - New York

Jessica Ostrower

Minneapolis-based photographer Paul Shambroom's latest New York show was titled "Meetings." Including eight large-scale, inkjet-on-canvas photographs, it documented town council meetings across the U.S. Although all the photographs depict public assemblies, Shambroom never photographed their audiences. The full titles of the photos include a host of information, from population size to setting to the cast of participants: for example, Stockton, Utah (population 567), Town Council, June 11, 2001. (L to R): Angle Harrison, Barry Thomas (Mayor), Claudia Baker.

Working with images taken with a 4-by-5-inch field camera, he scanned the color negatives, digitally manipulated them and then printed the photos on large, horizontal canvases (most 33 by 66 inches). In his earlier work, Shambroom made unmodified C-prints of nuclear warheads stored in remote locations in the U.S. In contrast to that meditation on power, "Meetings" chronicles and theatricalizes small-town democracy in action.

In their large-scale format and eye-level direct address, the photos seem to approach the impressive seriousness of Salon-style history painting. These routine conferences have been transformed into complex scenes of potent drama. Markle, Indiana ..., for instance, assumes the grandeur of Ingres's Apotheosis of Homer in its hierarchical, symmetrical composition. Shambroom captures three middle-aged men, seated at a two-level table (the central platform is higher than its flanking sides). Perhaps in reaction to the comments of their unseen interlocutors, their countenances are frozen in exasperation--one man leans forward, preparing to lunge in protest, while the other agitatedly wags his pencil. This rare moment of urgency contrasts sharply with many of the other meetings that underline the tedium of the legislative process.

By digitally modifying the colors, lighting, tonality and contrast of the original photographs, Shambroom has created a smooth, finished effect, sealed with a coat of varnish. In Buckland, Massachusetts ..., the windows behind the central figures frame a neighboring yard and building. A hazy, diffused light fills this exterior space, while the foreground remains sharp and in high contrast--Shambroom captures the gestural blur of a hand in motion. Through alterations such as softening and lightening, the artist has simulated the painterly effect of aerial perspective; by appropriating the academic technique of darkening the images' corners, he has further enhanced the distinction between foreground and background. Shambroom respectfully reveals the travails of small-town democracy, exposing a toilsome and humorless process in images that nevertheless entertain us.

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