Paul Shambroom: Evidence of Democracy

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through December 5

In Paul Shambroom’s Yamhill, Oregon (Population 790) City Council, April 9, 2003, five physically imposing people sit at a table facing the viewer. Though all are casually dressed and their poses and expressions are unpretentious, their body language communicates different attitudes: one person seems a bit cross while another looks wide-eyed with surprise. The table before these ordinary-looking folks is rather grand, draped with bunting that features an American flag design; an actual flag stands behind them, and on the wall is an exhibit of photos called “Glimpses of Our Past.”

Shambroom’s 35 images at the Museum of Contemporary Photography include 8 others of town councils from his “Meetings” series and 26 from his “Nuclear Weapons” series. Born in New Jersey in 1956 and now living in Minneapolis, Shambroom writes in a statement that both series explore power and that the “Meetings” images are linked to the “long-standing artistic tradition of rendering the powerful,” which includes “European court painting, early American history painting, and the many versions of the Last Supper.”

The “Meetings” photographs are wide, echoing the proportions of the conference tables depicted, and have a painterly look because they’re ink-jet prints on canvas covered with varnish. Shambroom has also altered the photos digitally. Using available light and shooting with a four-by-five camera, he found that the long exposures occasionally resulted in a blurred figure, which he would sometimes replace with a sharper image of the same person from another photo. He also evened out any variations in color due to the different light sources and softened the backgrounds slightly to make the figures stand out in a manner reminiscent of Renaissance painters’ atmospheric perspective.

As a result these images avoid the flatness of many documentary photographs, instead glowing sensually, and every part of the image seems balanced with every other, giving each person or object equal importance. The warm humanism that celebrates such down-home individuality is rare in an art world that seems to thrive on irony. Though Shambroom accurately writes that his photos “emphasize the theatrical aspects of meetings,” his symmetrical compositions and balanced lighting also reveal a democratic respect for individuals. In Van Buren, Indiana (Population 955) Town Council, July 21, 1999, the body language of the four people seated around a table reveals a whole spectrum of feeling, from boredom to intense interest. But the figures are equally weighted with respect to one another and to the wood-paneled walls surrounding them.

Wadley, Georgia (Population 2,468) City Council, August 13, 2001 might be taken as a gentle cultural comment. Four men, three in shirtsleeves, are seated rather casually behind a table while on the wall above them are mounted four formal portrait shots of men in suits and ties. The juxtaposition reveals another, unrelated change in the council: while three of the men at the table are African-American, only one of the men in the photos is. Shambroom doesn’t so much judge people, however, as record who they are. One man places his hands on the tabletop while another puts his in his lap, but neither pose is charged with meaning–it’s simply a marker of that person’s uniqueness. Exhibited on canvas without the protective glass customary in photo exhibits, these images encourage empathy with their subjects.

Not surprisingly, the “Nuclear Weapons” series is quite different: conventional color prints dominated by machinery are placed behind glass. Shambroom has put on view some of the many letters he wrote trying to get access to the restricted facilities pictured; in one letter he declares that his intention is not “to criticize or glorify.” For once an artist’s proposal seems reasonably accurate–though Shambroom does a little criticizing and glorifying. An untitled photo of a Trident submarine control room from 1992 shows a space cluttered with instruments and machinery while a ladder in the foreground reminds us that room has been made for humans–perhaps two or three at most. But the beauty of the image lies in the balance Shambroom creates among the complicated metal surfaces, overhead lights, and areas of bright red, creating a sensuousness like that in “Meetings.” Even an untitled 1992 image showing Trident submarine missile tubes, which dwarf a man in the background, is notable for the grandeur and beauty of the machinery.

Shambroom may have intended neither criticism nor glorification, but he says he does have “attitudes” toward nuclear weapons. When I asked about an untitled 1993 photo showing the delivery of the first operational B-2 stealth bomber, he told me that “all the compositional elements are intentional.” The image is hardly sinister, but a white rope in the foreground framed to follow the edge of one wing appears to cut through the bodies of the four airmen behind it. Similarly, in a 1994 image, the horizontal white line of an ELF antenna designed for communication with submerged submarines bisects the forest that fills the picture.

There’s something at once comforting and disturbing about a 1993 image of the debris from an unsuccessful Minuteman 1 missile test launch. Burnt and twisted metal lying in a road offers proof that fancy technology doesn’t always work. The skull-like shape of the debris also forms a contrast with the geometric “perfection” of the functional equipment in other photos. It’s as if Shambroom were capturing here a human quirk akin to the cocked head of a small-town politician.