Art Papers Nov 2004


How Does Democracy Look?

Paul Shambroom's photographs capture politics' intimate moments


Paul Shambroom's small-but-comfortable unit in the Center for Performing Arts building in South Minneapolis is unlike most art studios. For one, the space feels like a corporate basement information-storage room. Beyond the tiny entryway, it is mostly a repository-metal shelves lined with boxes, books, research resources, along with random photographic equipment. Against the back wall, a desk holds a computer and various files and research in progress. And incongruously, beyond the desk a small back-porch sunroom is decked out for meetings with low chairs and coffee table.
Meetings are important to Shambroom. His new book is called, appropriately, Meetings (released by British publisher Chris Boot this October). In the entryway hang images from this series, depicting the details of town council and county board meetings across the country. Typical among the photographs is Van Buren, Indiana (population 955) Town Council, July 21, 1999-a meeting of three men and one woman, all in the age of expanding waists and thinning hair, seated at a table before a wall of a faux walnut paneling. It is an absorbing examination of the psychology of meetings-the men posed in various states of engagement, rumination and avoidance as the woman gestures and speaks at one end of the table. This scene, all the more revealing for Shambroom's deadpan recording of the details, is repeated a thousand times a week around the country.
Shambroom's photographic eye finds interest in mundane spaces and situations that are, .each in their small way, crucial to the nation's functioning. While Shambroom claims a desire to explore "power in all its various forms:' what he does is both simpler and more complex. He visits people performing everyday rituals and spaces used for commonplace purposes that, while not extraordinary alone, together drive our society. His interests include city council meetings, and such rarely explored vistas as corporate office spaces, factories and nuclear facilities.
Shambroom's first few projects stemmed directly from the commercial photographic work-annual reports, executive portraits, etc.-he did upon graduating from school. This period was important later, as it allowed him to feel comfortable in halls of power and commerce. His artistic career started in full in 1985, after he received his first grant for photography from the McKnight Foundation, one of several institutions in Minnesota that supports artistic endeavors. "It was the first validation for my projects," he says. "Up till then I was doing aimless street photography- not very interesting." His grant-winning idea was to photograph his work-life from a different angle: that is, factory interiors and office spaces in all their gritty or sterile glory. Work from these years reveals a pendulum-swing of expression, between the beautiful clutter of some spaces to the more austere atmosphere of others. Untitled (North Star Steel Co. (steel), St. Paul, MN) (1988) depicts an eerie factory corner, wherein gray-blue shadows playoff the glowing orange and maroon hint of the factory's furnace. To the right, a small office space doorway reveals an exhausted seated man in a stained jumpsuit. In the left foreground, an imposing X of criss?crossing steel beams and a conglomeration of hoses, wires and pulleys barricade the man in his office oasis. Meanwhile, an image from the "Office" series, Untitled (Honeywell, Inc., Minneapolis, MN) (1989) depicts a space filled with discarded metal shelving and brackets, useless desk chairs and various tables and bits of equipment. On full display are the dull post-industrial surfaces and hard, dehumanizing geometry of cubicle wall and file cabinet.
Shambroom's constant goal, while working in a complicated conceptual framework, is to make the most compelling images from what's available. This aim is most evident in Shambroom's best-known series of photographs?of the nation's nuclear installations.
"Whatever visual tool that works is what I use," he says in particular of the "Nuclear" series, a project that took more than six years to complete. "My goal was just to make pictures people would want to look at... I hoped that people would see [nukes] as real, and not as abstract. There are people who go to work every day in these places. To me that was much more interesting than being didactic." A good example of his approach is Untitled (Trident submarine missile tubes, second level, USS Alaska, Naval Submarine Base Bangor, Washington) (1992). Although straightforward and untouched, this picture distills a vision of nuclear hell-all red tubes, black corners and seemingly inhumane cramped hallways.
Shambroom's "Nuclear" series led to his appearance in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and the images were collected in Shambroom's first book, Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Ironically, the often-terrifying "Nuclear" series led to the more austere "Meetings" project, as toward the end Shambroom became more interested in the "command and control" aspect of nuclear weapons. He decided to depict people who make the decisions about the use of nuclear weapons-if not the people themselves, at least their work environments-so the last images in the "Nuclear" series focus on the command centers and the communication system surrounding nuclear weapons. Out of an interest in conspiracy theory, Shambroom also became interested in depictinSJ groups who wielded power but were often not seen-boards of Fortune 500 corporations and the like. "I was feeling cocky," he says, "and thinking big. After the 'Nuclear' project, I was thinking I could get in anywhere. But that turned out not to be the case." In fact, he got completely shot down by his potential subjects-even progressive, arts-friendly corporations. Following his notions, Shambroom did some work in Washington D.C.-going to Capitol Hill to photograph several. House and Senate committee hearings-but the results were, unfortunately, not that interesting. The eureka moment came when he decided that since he couldn't get into any of the biggest of the big meetings, he would attend to the smallest of the small. He went to a city council meeting in a small community in Minnesota. "I can't even remember now how I found it," says Shambroom, "but I walked into the room and I thought wow, this is something. They were all lined up, and I loved the linear layout. They were sitting at a table in the front of the room, very engaged, and the set up was beautifuL.. I realized the way to do this was not to be clever, just put a camera in the middle and let subjects make their own photographs."
Despite what he calls a number of "Waiting for Guffman" moments, wherein the communities took a theatrical approach to presenting themselves, for the most part the images happened without pretension and preamble. (He did have to make a few digital composites to account for blurring due to his reliance on available light, though he says he took care to preserve the "truth" of the scenes.) "Ideally they wouldn't change things because I was coming," he says, "You'd never know until you walked in the door what sort of space it would be, but I improved my interrogation techniques over the course of the project." The resulting genuineness of the subjects is interestingly augmented by the inclusion, at the suggestion of the designer and publisher, of the minutes from each of the meetings at the end of Shambroom's book.
So where will his obsessions lead Shambroom next, now that he's given us a view of how power is exercised on the local level across this vast nation? Appropriately enough for the times, he says he's interested in the concept of homeland security. "Any U.S. artist who is engaged is thinking about what it means," he says. Particularly, he says he is beginning to take a look at the physical manifestations-at state, federal, and local agencies-of defending country against unknown enemies and is interested in the convulsive tensions in our society between being secret and being open. "There's a lot of conflict."
Still, he says based on experience he's learned to resist having preconceived notions about his idea. "I know the current project won't be what I think it will be," he says. "I know that anything could arise"

Paul Shambroom's new book Meetings (Chris Boot) was released in October. His exhibition "More Meetings" is at New York's Julie Saul Gallery until December 4.

MICHAEL FALLON is a Contributing Editor at ART PAPERS.