From office cubicles to nuclear launch control centers, Minneapolis-based photographer Paul Shambroom has documented various mundane and discrete American locations of power since the mid-1980s. “Picturing Power,” the first overarching survey of his work, is a traveling exhibition now on view at the Atlanta Contemporary. It presents selections from his five major series to date as well as a preview of his sixth.
In “Factories” (1986-88) and “Offices” (1989-90), Shambroom records sites typical of those in which many Americans spend the majority of their working lives. An oblique “X” girds the saturated red interior of a steel mill. The colors, shapes, and textures of an incomplete Boeing plane play against one another in alternating contrasts and “visual rhyme.”
The office photographs are cold and monotonous compared to the factory interiors. Nondescript cubicles are an all too familiar sight, as is the way in which each employee has attempted to personalize their stubbornly identical work spaces. Even plant life becomes static and immutable in such uninspired settings.
I noted that the spaces in which skilled workers spend their days generally have much more visual appeal than most business offices. But alas, work is work. Note the bored—or perhaps even napping—steel worker visible through the door at North Star Steel Company above.
“Nuclear Weapons” (1992-2001) is intended to correct the relative lack of visual documentation of America’s nuclear arsenal. For this series, the US military granted Shambroom unprecedented access to warheads, submarines, bombers, missiles, and associated facilities. Shambroom believes admittance to these locations is essential to an open and democratic society. He states:
My goal is neither to directly criticize nor glorify. My objective is to reveal the tangible reality of the huge nuclear arsenal, something that exists for most of us only as a powerful concept in our collective consciousness.
Despite the ending of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to be produced worldwide and therefore continue to influence American thinking. The mundane appearance of warheads in these photos in this series becomes particularly compelling. In one photo, a member of the US military performs the commonplace task of sweeping…around bombs.
In another, a muscular cartoon eagle decorates a blast door. He stands on a US map while pointing a missile at a symbol of the Soviet Union. This image struck me as reminiscent of an American high school sports banner.
For “Meetings” (1999-2003), Shambroom investigates what he considers to be the source of American democracy: town council and community meetings. It is in this series that he begins using an intriguing mix of media—pigmented inkjet on varnished canvas. The line between photography and painting successfully blurs in the exhibition space as the varnish reflects the gallery lighting, highlighting the canvas texture.
As in “Nuclear Weapons,” Shambroom’s very ability to attend and document these meetings speaks to a democratic America. The works’ panoramic views, typical of more visually grand subjects, champion their representations of everyday citizens practicing democracy. Shambroom states:
In a time in which there is talk of ‘exporting democracy’ it seems especially pertinent to look at the often imperfect and sometimes beautiful way in which we practice this form of government at home in America.
These bored-looking civil servants, though, may suggest many US citizens take this right for granted.
Begun in 2004, “Security” is Shambroom’s exploration of post-9/11 American consciousness, specifically issues of fear, safety, and liberty. He photographs training facilities, equipment, and personnel involved in government and private sector efforts to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks within the US.
To accomplish this, he has traveled to sites including “Disaster City” National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center in Texas and “Terror Town” in New Mexico.
“Security” includes unsettling photographs like Decontamination Foam Test and Swat Team Approaching House that feature multiple active subjects. But perhaps the most successful works of Shambroom’s entire oeuvre are the nearly life-size photographs printed on canvas that feature single human subjects.
In these, Shambroom incorporates the stylized landscapes and inconsistent lighting characteristic of 18th- and 19th-century grand portraiture such as this Gainsborough painting.
Shambroom’s subjects read like action figures that seem almost comical, despite their undertone of threat and violence. The monumental poses—of the yellow HAZMAT suit with red boots and Geiger counter and the green bomb suit with robot (above)—lend the works a conflicting anachronistic-futuristic vibe. Since the photographs are printed on canvas, they become portraiture of our current era.
The exhibition includes a monitor that previews images from Shambroom’s sixth series, “Memorial,” begun this year. The series focuses on retired US weapons of war on permanent display in public settings. Situated in picturesque locales including town squares and city parks, the weapons seem distinctly, sometimes comically, out of place. But typical of Shambroom’s work, these photos simultaneously convey serious, even somber messages.
I enjoyed the opportunity “Picturing Power” afforded me to contemplate the evolution of Shambroom’s oeuvre. He consistently explores specific themes, and I found their expression more powerful in each successive series. Unfortunately, the exhibition isn’t organized in strict chronological order. (I am all too aware that gallery space often dictates layout.) Aside from this one complaint, “Picturing Power” is engaging, and I appreciated the glimpse into Shambroom’s current project.
“Picturing Power” is on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through Sun. Nov. 30.