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Title: Small town democracy
Feature: Photographer profile
Date: 12 January 2005
Paul Shambroom's work sheds a different light on the corridors of power. Diane Smyth reports
Advance copies of Paul Shambroom's book Meetings hit the streets just as the US presidential election campaigns hit their glossily stage-managed finales. On the face of it, these carefully orchestrated mass rallies had little in common with Shambroom's images of small town, small scale local council meetings. But to the photographer they had everything in common.
'There's a different level of symbolism but the presidential elections were not necessarily different. Even in the small towns these communities pay attention to the public face they present. You can see this awareness in the rooms they use - in some of them the mayor sits on a platform eight inches higher than every one else. In that sense the stage management is not all that different.'
Shambroom travelled across the US, photographing more than 150 meetings. He focused on meetings that included eight members or less, and at which issues such as noisy neighbours and the type of grass to be cultivated in public spaces were discussed. But Shambroom believes that the tiny scale and scope of these meetings makes them more important to the democractic process, rather than less - and sees this project as an extension of his previous investigations into corporate and military power.
'These meetings seemed the essence of democracy because the actions they take affect the residents in such a direct way,' he says. 'The type of grass used is really important to some people and it has such a direct impact on them. In that sense I think these meetings' decisions can appear more important than the president's.'
Shambroom also found the small-scale meetings more visually interesting, relishing the idiosyncracies of contingent meeting places. 'Some-times they were having the meeting in multi-purpose rooms, sometimes in schools. Towns above a certain size are much more professional in a way, which means they tend to all look the same and are much less interesting.'
He went to over 150 meetings, but if he felt the situation was not visually promising, he would simply take a couple of images and leave. Shambroom used a 4x5 Horseman field camera, adding a roll-film back to shoot onto 6x12cm colour negatives. He worked with available light, opting to use long exposure times rather than add extra light.
'That meant that I had to wait for people to stop moving,' he says. 'That lead me to photograph moments of quiet. The images tended to be taken when they were listening to one of the members, or a police officer or other official, reading a report. Some people have interpreted the resulting expressions as bored or overly serious, but that wasn't my intention.'
However, once Shambroom started to edit his images he realised that this stillness also gave his images an intense, hypnotic feel - and that they all looked to some some extent like traditional images of The Last Supper.
'That wasn't something I was aware of at first but I think these things can be in your mind at a subliminal level,' he says.
Shambroom did all his own post-production, preparing digital files from his films, not his prints or transparencies. He used Photoshop to iron out irregularities between the images - in some meetings, for example, he was forced to set up his tripod to one side, so he used Photoshop to ensure that he kept the central perspective in all the finished images.
Similarly, he used Photoshop to make subtle adjustments to the colour, light, and sharpness in each shot, and to correct distortion if a wide-angle lens was used - he used lenses from 65 to 300mm on his 4X5 camera during the project. 'I try not to call attention to the use of Photoshop,' he says. 'I see it as a tool that is not different in intent to traditional darkroom methods, just infinitely more capable.'
Shambroom printed the images onto very large canvasses 66 inches wide, using archival Epson inks, again playing with the comparison between his prints and the much older oil paintings they resemble. He says through creating these larger images he also hoped to allow the viewer to take their own direction on how to look at them.
'There was a lot of visual information so when the images are large the viewer is able to visually scan across the print and make his or her own decisions on how to "read" them,' he says.
In fact, Shambroom says that the perception of the images has proved interesting, with the highly politicised situation in the US meaning that viewers have drawn diametrically opposed conclusions from the same photographs.
'It's funny, you do a project then it kind of takes on a life of its own,' he says. 'Some people see the photographs as very idealistic, while others see them as ironic. I think I could generally say that people in Europe have had a different reaction to people in the US, but people react in different ways and it's not consistent. But I know I can't control how people look at the images.'
And plenty of people can see them. Meetings was exhibited at the Arles festival - Shambroom's first large-scale exhibition in Europe - and at Martin Parr's suggestion, put together into a book by Chris Boot Publishing, published in September. 'I was intending to look for a publisher when Chris got in touch with me,' says Shambroom. 'I was so pleased.'
But despite Shambroom's increasingly wide recognition, he intends to focus on the US for his next project - so far loosely conceived as a project on homeland security. 'I'm always interested in what's going on in the world but I'm particularly interested in things close to home in the US,' he says. I feel a particular responsibility to cast a probing eye on subjects that I have access to, by virtue of my status as an educated, middle-class American.Selected CV
1974 - 1975 Macalester College, St Paul, MN, liberal arts
1978 Minneapolis College of Art & Design, concentration in photography
1993 Part of group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York - 'Recent Acquisitions in Photography'
1997 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Whitney Biennial
1997 - 1998 Solo exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
1997 - 2000 Minneapolis College of Art & Design, visiting artist, media arts
2002 Solo exhibition of the Meetings project at Julie Saul Gallery, NY
2003 Solo exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
2003 Guggenheim Fellowship
2003 Face to Face with the Bomb, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
2004 Solo exhibition at Arles Rencontres de la Photographie, FranceMeetings
Meetings, photographs by Paul Shambroom, is published by Chris Boot, (ISBN: 0-9542813-8-1) priced £30.Shambroom on Meetings
'My photographs of government meetings are a continuation of my long-term investigation of power begun in previous series on nuclear weapons, factories, and corporate offices.
'A common impulse in these projects is my quest as one individual to understand and illuminate seemingly overwhelming and abstract power systems.
Although town council and community meetings are open to the public, the process of governance can still seem somewhat invisible and separate from the lives of ordinary people (as evidenced by the fact that most of the meetings I photograph are sparsely attended).
'These photographs emphasise the theatrical aspects of meetings: There is a 'cast', a 'set', an 'audience' (sometimes), and a 'programme' (the agenda). Seating arrangements, clothing, and body language all provide clues to local cultural traits and political dynamics. The subjects play dual roles as private individuals and (sometimes reluctant) public leaders.
Power may be relative, but the mayor of a town of 200 has much in common with the President of the United States. We see ourselves reflected (either in positive or negative) in our leaders, exemplifying both the highest ideals and lowest depths of the human spirit. Our reactions to them help define our perceptions of our own place in society, as insiders or outsiders, haves or have-nots
'This new work is a departure from my earlier series both in presentation and compositional approach. I begin with conventional photographic methods, but then digitally scan and manipulate the images' tonality, and sharpness.
By utilising conventions such as eye-level centred compositions, and panoramic formats I place this work squarely in the traditions of historical portrait genres. The large-scale prints on canvas are stretched and varnished to further these references and probe the boundaries between photography and painting.
'My photographic road trips are inspired by the traditions of Robert Frank and Walker Evans, but the methodology is decidedly 21st century.
Using a laptop computer, a database of more than 15,000 communities in over thirty states, and mapping software I plan my daily itinerary according to geography, population, and meeting schedules. After driving several hundred back-road miles I pull up to the town meeting hall and there have the privilege of seeing democracy in its purest form as farmers, teachers, and insurance agents conduct the business of their community.'
Photograph © Paul Shambroom.
© Incisive Media Investments Ltd 2006