Saturday, December 2, 2006
Larger view
Radiation check by Paul Shambroom (National Center for Combating Terrorism, Nevada Test Site) Archival pigmented inkjet on paper mounted on aluminum composite 2005 24X30 (Photo by Paul Shambroom)

Picturing security

by Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
September 21, 2006

You've probably never been to Terror Town or Disaster City, but these are actual places in the United States, training centers where government workers prepare for the worst. A new exhibit at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis examines the proving ground of the homeland security industry with an artistic eye.

Minneapolis, Minn. — On September 11, 2001, Minneapolis-based photographer Paul Shambroom realized his work was about to change direction.

Shambroom is known nationally for his photographs exploring notions of power. His past exhibitions include an inside look at nuclear missile silos and capturing small-town meetings all over America. He had planned to follow money and commerce as his next topic, but as he watched the United States government react to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and observed his own emotions in the wake of the attacks, he decided it was time to look at national security.

In past projects, Shambroom has known how he felt about a topic before he worked on it--democracy, good; nuclear weapons, bad. This time he felt a certain amount of ambiguity.

"You know, I think it's a good thing that people train in Hazmat suits and know how to deal with hazardous environments and possible weapons of mass destruction," Shambroom says. "If, god forbid, they're ever used here it's certainly a worthwhile thing that people are training how to deal with that. Whether that in itself is a solution to the problem or makes us safer as a people or makes the world a safer place, I don't know."

Hazmat suits play a prominent role in several of the images now on display at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis. The first room is filled with full-length portraits--almost life-sized--of SWAT policeman, urban search-and-rescue workers, and bomb diffusers. They are covered head to toe in uniforms and gear, their faces only barely visible within their helmets, and covered by gas masks.

One of the people at the opening of the exhibition was Vince Leo, vice president of academic affairs at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He's followed Shambroom's work since the late 1980s. He says he admires how Shambroom follows power and manifestations of power that we don't normally see, and then captures them in a defining moment.

He's particularly struck by an image of a group of men in a dramatic pose as they test a building for radiation.

"It makes you think of Rembrandt and it makes you think of George W. Bush at the same time," Leo says. "And that's a very powerful image."

Many of the photographs have been transferred to canvas. Shambroom says he was inspired by paintings of civic and military leaders in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, where people are depicted in a heroic manner.

He says these are portraits, but they are about depicting icons rather than individuals.

"It also gives them a bit of a superhero aura," Shambroom says. "I guess these things are sort of half Gainsborough and half GI Joe."

The modern icons are placed for the most part in natural settings--in the desert or the woods. But because of the lighting Shambroom used, the backdrops appear fake. He says he did it to emulate the master portrait painters who would take the renderings of their subjects and drop them into a background that was painted sometimes with very contradictory light, often done by an apprentice. The result is a sense of disconnection between the man and his environment.

Also at the opening was Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and the author of the book "Beyond Fear." He says this is not the first time he's witnessed security as the subject of an artistic conversation, whether it's the design of concrete planters in front of a government building, or more aesthetically pleasing gas masks.

Despite his own familiarity with the tools of the trade, he finds the images in this exhibition surreal.

"I'm struck by the otherworldness of them," Schneier says. "People don't walk around in Hazmat suits. That's not something that happens normally--that it's our world but it looks like another world. And it's interesting the difference between the reality and what we're seeing in the pictures."

Shambroom appears to have succeeded at capturing the strange, campy theatrics of people practicing for a terrorist attack. Two photographs depict the aftermath of a car bomb. The blast threw the cars 50 feet, splattering debris across a white wall, not unlike an abstract Jackson Pollack painting. One gallery visitor remarked she didn't know whether she should laugh or cry. Another said he was surprised by how such straightforward images can manage to make him feel stirrings of fear.

Shambroom says he's intrigued by the intersection of fear, comedy and noble intentions that he found at these test sites.

"It's very serious work that's being done there," Shambroom says, "and the people working there are really very earnest and I'm sure they're learning a lot. And at the same time there's a kind of theme park environment because it's all pretend. And there's kind of a Hollywood film lot aspect to it where there'll be facades of buildings with nothing behind them."

In the months and years to come, Shambroom plans to continue exploring the bizarre drama of preparing for disaster. Next up he'll be visiting a company that manufactures make-up specifically for these training centers to simulate wounds caused by terrorist events.