November 18, 2003

Shambroom's photography: poignant if you get it

In 1963, as the United States nuclear arsenal awaited a standoff with the USSR, Andorra, a tiny nation in the Pyrenees with a total population of 5,000, drew up its defense budget. The total expenditure: $4.90. Ever since, hippies and peaceniks have wanted to try this at home, with no luck. In the U.S., where 5,000 is the population of a town with a volunteer fire department, local politics and foreign policy occupy opposite ends of the democratic power spectrum.

Paul Shambroom confronts this discrepancy in Evidence of Democracy, a photography exhibit that runs until December 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College. In the 1980s, Shambroom, a Minnesota-based photographer, began shooting in police stations, factories, and corporate offices in order to capture the tangible power dynamic that reigns in each of these spaces. Shambroom has spent the past decade photographing two more diverse loci of power: the town councils of American towns with less than 5,000 people and the United States nuclear arsenal. The resulting Meetings and Nuclear Weapons series are displayed side by side in Shambroom's Evidence of Democracy.

That Shambroom got a tripod and a four-by-five camera onto a B2 bomber is itself evidence of democracy, sweetened by the thoroughly democratic process through which Shambroom secured permission. He wrote to his representative, who wrote to his senator, who eventually secured approval from the austere-sounding Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare for Shambroom's project. When Shambroom's clearance dissolved after September 11, 2001, the artist began to photograph small-town councils, which were more patient with, though perhaps puzzled by, his requests.

When surrounded on one side by portraits of middle-aged, middle-class, middle America hashing out parking regulations and on the other side by glossy photographs of nuclear gravity bombs with the annihilating force of one million metric tons of TNT, it is tempting to simply see the well-wishing weak and the strong. It is a pity, exhibition-goers may conclude as they retrieve their coats, how American grassroots democracy has been dwarfed by superpower status. Not quite. Shambroom's skilled portraiture, which enriches both series, tells a more complex power relations story.

Consider Mayor Albert Samples of Wadley, Georgia, population 2,468. In Shambroom's photograph, Samples and his colleagues lean back, sleeves rolled, glasses shed on a spacious mahogany desk. Yet the Wadley town council listens so intently that we can plot the position of the (not pictured) speaker by following the focus of the councilmen's eyes and the slant of their shoulders.

Mayor Samples sits beneath a portrait of a predecessor in Wadley politics, and Shambroom captures a striking visual connection between the two men. Both overweight black town officials, Samples and the man pictured above him carry their heft with grace and set their lips with the stoicism of one who cannot be phased. And just as Samples' pictured predecessor stares from his portrait and commands the Wadley council room, Samples looks out from Shambroom's photograph and presides over the gallery. Their authority comes from a shared, take-no-bullshit gaze that, in a former slave state, might be called evidence of democracy.

Local democracy, Shambroom's portraits suggest, empower Americans by enabling them to effect change within their own environment. Shambroom's photographic technique highlights this conferred dignity. The artist digitally scans his negatives and adjusts light and focus to differentiate between the background and foreground. As a result, the Meetings photographs evoke commemorative portraiture and reflect Shambroom's enthusiasm for what he calls "democracy in its purest form [when] farmers, teachers, and real estate agents conduct the business of their community." Remember, after all, that the privilege of having elected farmers regulate our parking is eactly what nuclear weapons purport to protect.

But in the immediate environment of nuclear weapons, the individual is so diminished that he seems disposable. The distance necessary to capture an entire Trident submarine on film shrinks the two men painting its exterior to flimsy uniformed dolls. The prolonged film exposure that captures a row of B83 nuclear gravity bombs in stark immaculate detail leaves a nearby maintenance worker blurred and insubstantial. In a photograph of the blast door of a launch control center, we see only an arm and a leg of the officer disappearing into the center. Instead of his face and body, we see the door's crude, painted squadron logo: a red-white-and-blue clad eagle pointing a missile at a hammer and sickle.

But Shambroom does not intend only to betray these weapons as dehumanizing. Rather, Shambroom's photographs insist, as his title suggests, that nukes are also "evidence of democracy." Shambroom's title chides exhibition-goers who would shy away from his glossy, unequivocal images in high-minded horror. He is "intrigued," curator Karen Irvine explains, "by people's inclination to deny any sense of ownership for what their democratic system has produced."

What differentiates the Wadley town council's prerogative to regulate parking from the United States' build-up and maintenance of its nuclear arsenal is simply, these photographs suggest, a matter of democratic proximity. Locally elected councilmen draft, observe, respond to, and modify town regulations in a democratic give-and-take available for all to see. As Shambroom's photographs confirm, constituents routinely attend town council meetings. Nuclear weapons, necessarily hidden in restricted and isolated navy and military bases, fall under the control of a nationally elected commander in chief and under the day-to-day control of appointed military and state department officials.

It is, in fact, this disparity in what Shambroom might call "democratic distance" that prompted his project. Shambroom's artistic statement declares his intention "to present areas that have existed only as powerful concepts in our collective consciousness, in a way that viewers can relate to their own realities." And, significantly it is the same disparity that inspired military cooperation. In a letter finally inviting Shambroom to photograph nuclear submarines, Navy P.R. Officer Lieutenant Taylor B. Kiland deems Shambroom's project "an ideal way for the American people to see the complex and highly technological environment in which submarines work." Kiland even includes a kind of campaign pitch aimed at garnering democratic approval. "The idea of making this environment look aesthetic," Kiland adds, "is especially appealing."

Thus, Shambroom's exhibition of his Nuclear Weapons series attempts the kind of democratic dialogue that occurs organically at a council meeting in Wadley, Georgia. In the contemplative and respectful Meetings series, Shambroom distills for his audience the empowering nature of direct local democracy. In the Nuclear Weapons photographs, by allowing glances into a hidden arsenal, Shambroom serves up national democracy a little bit more directly.