Creative Review, November 2004
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
Stephen Doyle enjoys some candid photography of US council meetings
Democracy isn't pretty. Meetings, a book of photographs by Paul Shambroom, documents democracy in action, surrounded by its banal accoutrements: its StYrofoam cups, extension cords, baseball caps, soft drinks, fans, folding tables, flags and phones, wall calendars, clocks, cables, norKIairy creamer, coffee mugs. Compound symbols of power abound: flags with tassels, seals with stars, eagles with arrows, portraits in frames, formica plaques with routedout names, gavels at rest, lots of artificial woodgrain and the ultimate display of power: piles of paper and chains of keys. Democracy crosses its heavy legs, leans forward in its leatherette chair, rests a chin on a freckled hand, furrows its grey eyebrows, and strains to hear.
Across America, Shambroom has infiltrated town meetings, has captured at eye-level, the monotonous, yet moving, exchanges that shape our towns. From Carefree, Arizona (population 2,927) to New York, New York (population 8 million), Shambroom's panoramic compositions collect the gestures and debris, the clothing and culture, the heads and hands of citizens willing to debate and decide the minute questions of civil govemance.
There is a formula for democratic process, for sure. Robert's Rules of Order apply to all the proceedings:
calling a meeting to order, making and seconding motions, adopting or denying resolutions and eventually, adjoumment. But there are no Rules of Order for these cool photographs of civic ritual. Dispassionate as they each are, the forty photographs in this volume add up to a fervent portrait of power - and patience. When's the last time you examined a portrait of someone listening? We can see in this book that it is hard work. Concentration eliminates posing, and this books shows us startlingly genuine portraits.
With no evidence of artificial light for photography, no eye contact with the commissioners, eldermen, secretaries, mayors or clerks; no sense of intrusion whatsoever, Shambroom gives us one tableau after another, where drama fills the photos, powered by the slightest fuel: a raised eyebrow here, a pen tapped on a table there.
These meetings are not the heroic kind we know from painted commemoration, like John Trumbull's articulate depiction of 46 statesmen gathered for the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. In their best finery, they are carefully arranged for a checklist of portraits, in an interior infused With heavenly light from nowhere. The compositional crescendo is on an artful disarrangement of important papers on a velvet-draped table. History freezes over. Even better: Da Vinci's baker's dozen, where body language, gesture, symbolism and ambiguity in front of one-point Renaissance perspective have intrigued centuries of interpreters.
Instead, Shambroom's dioramas replace grand gestures with miniscule ones. Careful scrutiny is rewarded. In West Chester, Iowa (POPulation 132) a globe (the rest of the worldl) sits on a safe in the city council chamber, right next to the fire extinguisher and the coffee maker; the coffee mugs are wood-grained, matching the conference table (shown, 1). In Yamhill, Oregon, the city council is solidly ensconced behind a table decked with stars-and-stripes bunting (shown, 2). The cabinet behind them shares two postings: "No weapons allowed", and a picture poster proclaiming the "Winner of the NoBelt Prize." The City Council of Yamill, clearly, need belts, but they must leave their weapons at home.
Stoic and intent, Manhattan's District 7 Community Board sits behind a string of folding tables (shown, 3). Seen from a crotchsniffing dog's eye view, the tables merely bisect the seated figures,
interrupting their bodies with big, readable name cards. These, plus the municipal down lights has an almost mug-shot effect on these figures, but the massive oil portraits that look over their shoulders recalls you to the civic business at hand. The visual rhyming of expression, pose and illumination of a painted city father so closely resembles his contemporary counterparts, we are reminded, that through the tolerance and forebearance of one meeting after the other, history is quietly being shaped.
I am held by these photographs, like the people who POPulate them, in rapt attention. For me they are far more captivating than Bemd and Hilla Becher's water tanks, or Karl Blossfeldt's biology. Each interior tells a story: the wood paneling, cinderblock, wallpaper, and linoleum help to narrate; the postures, gestures and expressions charge the pictures with human electricity.
Ultimately, though, it is the people themselves who become the American landscape portrayed in this book. Their cowboy hats and plaid shirts, sneakers or sandals, pumps and pearls, tans and t-shirts make the quick introduction, but it is their bodies, their arms and legs, hands, eyes and mouths, concentrating, in the midst of dull business, that won't let me stop staring at them. Who are these people, the five greying, white aldermen in short sleeves of Marshfield Missouri (shown, 4)? They are resisting something: four of the five have crossed their arms or legs; two of the four have linked fingers. And the five welk:oiffed black women in blazers who are the town council of Dobbins Heights, North Carolina (shown, 5)? They are listening eamestly. Dutifully. But to what?
Luckily for us, when curiosity takes over, one can flip to the back, and review the minutes of all these meetings - dutifully recorded. Printed in neat narrow columns, on thin "bible" stock, are the tracks of democracy. In Dobbins Heights (population 936), these dapper ladies discussed the need for families to be recorded in the census. An accurate population count impacts funding. The "cleanup project" reported that ten families had cleaned up their lots; the Street Report slated 11 dirt streets to be paved by Spring, and the State representative pledged to assist the town with its desire for its own post office. In addition, "No Parking" and "No Loitering" signs were being erected throughout the town. 50, with another town council meeting under its belt, and some signs on the way, Dobbins Heights will keep moving.
It would have been easy for a photographer to satirise, or even ridicule these people in their sometimes curious clothes and often shabby surroundings. Instead, Paul shambroom confers on them the humble nobility of democracy. This collection adds up to a core-sample of self-govemment, a modem-day archaeology of Democracy. He recognises that these characters are us ourselves, and that. their intentions are ours. It adds up to a searingly honest photographic fanfare for the common man.
Stephen Doyle. a graphic designer and creative director of New York-based Doyle Partners prefers designing to meetings. Meetings by Paul Shambroom is published by Chris Boot and priced at £29.95