Last update: October 16, 2004 – 11:00 PM

Grass-roots democracy: The tedium is the message

Ellen Lorentzson

Former president Lyndon B. Johnson once said that in every town in this country, there is a White House. Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom traveled the country for four years documenting scores of those far-flung seats of power and the mini-presidents who run them.

He has compiled some of his large-format color photographs into "Meetings," a book that documents local officials who do the often boring work of keeping a democratic system alive at the grassroots.

"It's about the dual nature of being a public and private person," Shambroom said in a recent interview. "That is a commonality of the president or the mayor of Pahokee. There is a duality going on inside."

Shambroom includes minutes of the photographed meetings on tissue pages at the back of the book. From them we learn, for example, about the evening in March 2000, when he showed up to shoot the City Council of Sutton, W. Va., in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Russell Carpenter, the mayor, called the session to order and discussed establishing a Neighborhood Watch program. Police Chief Larry Emge told the council that tires on the police department Jeep were bald. A motion by Councilman Paul Moss, seconded by Councilwoman Marsha Lloyd, inched the purchase forward. The council would compare prices at local tire dealers. The presence of photographer Paul Shambroom was noted.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:10 p.m.

In Calumet, Minn., Mayor Connie Swanson and Council Members Nelson Anderson and Daniel Strand met with city clerk Julie Childs. Wally Stokes told the council he was having trouble with David Veith's dog. "The next time he gets off the chain we will have the dog catcher bring the dog to the Humane Society," Stokes was told. Council minutes caution that dogs without a license will be taken to the pound.

Shambroom's portraits of grassroots democracy came about after another documentary idea, about the other extreme of power and leadership, was squashed.

His earlier hope had been to look at the nation's top power brokers in board rooms and government buildings. "I got completely shut down by corporations in spite of all my well-honed powers of persuasion," he said. "It just wasn't going to happen."

Before "Meetings," Shambroom worked for nearly a decade on "Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War," a collection of images of nuclear weapons, of soldiers climbing on nuclear warheads as though they are jungle gyms. The photographs were introduced at the 1997 Whitney Biennial in New York and serve in broad terms as a background for the current book. Both photography books consider power.

In "Meetings" Shambroom moves closer to the people who use it. He selected towns like Randolph, N.H., where a three-member panel conducts government activities for its 383 residents. And he went to New York City's borough of Manhattan, where a community board represents 207,699 people. Manhattan politicians look polished as they meet in front of large paintings, a marked contrast to the notices from the U.S. Department of Labor that adorn the walls of many small-town meeting rooms.

Images in the book show tired faces and baseball caps, worn shoes, a large purse on the floor and a meeting room with pink curtains. They demand to be considered for all the detail and conjecture an image can elicit. Contained between covers, the images can be irritating, repetitive and banal. They somehow fail to convey the romantic notion of civic duty in action. But the impact of the much bigger gallery images is different. Shot with a large-format panoramic camera and printed 66 inches wide, the prints impart a whisper of royalty from the subjects.

Shambroom's interest in formal portraiture and a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design inform his work. He also counts the work of German husband-and-wife photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher among his influences.

But the people who run for office in small towns and those who work within the layers of a large city intrigue Shambroom now.

"I got into this to learn something more than to teach. I don't really have a viewpoint, " he said. He carried away insight into the dynamics of local government. After listening to a few council sessions Shambroom could quickly see the troublemakers and peacemakers, he said.

He remained an observer. Shambroom's decisions for photographing "Meetings," had to do with keeping his personal distance. "Shooting at eye level felt right. I didn't want to call attention to the photographic choices and angles and being clever and myself. I wanted to step away. I tried to embrace the tedium in a Zenlike way and see what's beautiful and interesting about it. I listened and waited for stillness," he said.

Paul Shambroom

What: Book launch and signing of photographer Paul Shambroom's "Meetings," with a dialog at 7 p.m. between Shambroom and Weisman curator Diane Mullin.

When: 6:30-8 p.m. Tue.

Where: Minnesota Center for Photography, 165 13th Av. NE., Mpls.

Tickets: Free. 612-824-5500.

Ellen Lorentzson is atelorentzson@startribune.com.