116 PDN OCTOOBER 2003
By Christopher D. Ringwald
Paul Shambroom would not take no for an answer. Obsessed with the objects that provide both the ultimate co and fear for millions, nuclear weapons, the Minneapolis-based photographer ignored numerous rejections before finally gaining access to a world few have seen. His book, Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after Cold War, featuring 13 years of work, is showcased in this month's Exposures.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MUSHROOM CLOUD
POWER FLEXES AND FLOWS All AROUND US, All the time. Yet rarely do we see, touch or smell the actual source and mechanics of power, be it political decisions, electrical generation, corporate operations, social consensus or death making.
Paul Shambroom, a Minneapolis photographer and artist, records both the sites and sights of power and its trappings, from factories and offices-his previous projects-to nuclear weapons-recently completed-and town meetings, now in process. The Johns Hopkins University Press just published his book, Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War. Its 83 images are the fruit of 13 yearsı work and preoccupation, during which he paid the bills with commercial and magazine work, teaching and artists' grants. Shambroom wrote an eloquent essay for the book, and Richard Rhodes, a prominent historian and author of books on the atomic bomb, contributed an introductory text.
The book looks at our nuclear arsenal, bombs to bombers, silos to submarines, conference tables to computer screens. From 1992 to 2001, Shambroom made 34 visits to 25 sites to photograph strategic, or targeted, nuclear weapons and their infrastructure.
Why power? "I have absolutely no idea, says Shambroom. But he does know that he tends more interested in unseen and unscrutinized power. Nuclear weapons fit that bill. "They are so much a part of our national identity, and yet we've never seen them."
The topic naturally followed those of his previous projects. "Nuclear weapons seemed like the ultimate challenge, but I had no idea that I would become obsessed with it for 13 years," says Shambroom. Each visit took lots and lots of effort and frustration. heard 'no, no, no' over and over."
After two years of research, Shambroom began with the assumption that a citizen could expect the government to account for and show its operations, shy of any threat to national security. He gained markable access and came to appreciate the protections and freedoms afforded him as a citizen rights that were recognized by the military personnel he dealt with. Most hurdles he encountered we bureaucratic rather than hostile. Still, he only was. allowed to photograph nuclear devices-as opposed to the infrastructure or means of delivery-at two of the bases.
Though complete objectivity eludes the best of documentarians. Shambroom said he ventured forth into the atomic holds in the spirit of curiosity. "I went into each site trying to make the most visually compelling image I could." His goal: to create a record "so that people looking at the book would come to believe that nuclear weapons are real and not abstract."
Many have a textbook quality, until a second glance shocks the reader with the potential destructive power of the bombs and missiles. When he was shooting areas above missile silos, said Shambroom, "I would try to make the most beautiful landscape photograph possible of scenes that happen to have a nuclear warhead underneath." Inside a submarine, he used an impressionistic approach to convey the controlled chaos of the scene. Other times he favored a magazine method. recording action- such as a crew loading bombs onto a bomber-as it was happening.
Other images juxtapose and layer elements. In one, we look into a bomber crew's dorm room with a neatly made bunk bed and a 3ible on a bureau beneath a brass lamp, all on the right side. To the left, outside the doorway, a steel ramp in a tunnel leads up to the airfield. The round corridor blazes with light from outside, as if in a near-death vision of approaching divinity.
Shambroom's choice for the picture that best tells the whole story is on the book's cover. It shows a military man in camouflage pants and green T-shirt sweeping the floor, with a straw broom, in front of a row of 13 porcelainwhite one-megaton bombs in a storage shed. Each bomb is 60 times as powerful as that dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. "It's the combination of these nightmare devices and a soldier performing an ordinary task," he says, "of the banality of the task and the lethality of the weapons."
He shot 5,000 to 10,000 exposures on 6 x 7 color negatives using, most of the time, a Plaubel Makina camerano longer manufactured-that has a wide angle and medium range and is compact and easy to focus. About 200 images were good enough for the book, Shambroom said.
Currently, he is photographing town council meetings in small communities across the country. He spent two years researching the topic and four taking pictures. "I work on a very long-term basis," commented Shambroom, who conveys the dour seriousness of a man committed to his obsessions. The work has beer at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York and he recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue the endeavor.
His bomb project represents the fulfillment of a longtime curiosity. The atomic threat has always been real to Shambroom. In 1966 as a fifth-grader, he wrote this haiku: "Look up in the sky/See the pretty mushroom cloud/Soon we will be dead," That's true now, only more so. As he writes in the book, "I've seen that nuclear weapons are real, and I'm terrified in a way that I never was before."