PICTURING POWER

Shambroom’s frank documentary depictions of places glimpsed by most of us only in nightmares—high-security military sites, including missile command centers, Trident submarines, and weapons storage facilities—made for riveting viewing, even as cold-war fears of certain doom seemed to be loosening their grip. Now, in a vastly changed cultural context, the Minneapolis-based artist’s first comprehensive midcareer survey, which originated at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, brings together his nuclear series and four other major bodies of work: “Factories,” 1986–88, “Offices,” 1989–90, “Meetings,” 1999–2003, and “Security,” 2004–2007. As these photographs indicate, Shambroom is drawn to what he calls “spaces of power,” but his definition of power is far from formulaic… Viewed retrospectively, and despite the series’ varying strengths, Shambroom’s work urges us to rethink ever-shifting regimes of power and the ongoing governmental fixation on national security threats. This exhibition also prompts a reconsideration of the function of documentary photography today, given constantly changing conditions of secrecy, access, and transparency. Can carefully staged photographs maintain their relevance amid the increasing flood of information available instantaneously through all media? Most of Shambroom’s images do—perhaps because they insistently present themselves not as information but as rigorous pictures, depictions of specific things at specific moments, all the more resistant to abstraction because of their mundanely convincing particularity. As with his photograph of the unassuming man sweeping the floor in front of one-megaton bombs, Shambroom is at his best when his exposés achieve a level of unexpected intimacy.
ArtForum, "Reviews: Paul Shambroom, University Art Museum at California  State University, Long Beach", Summer 2009, Bryan-Wilson, Julia.

There's something unexpectedly poignant about Paul Shambroom's color photographs of factories, offices and nuclear weapons. Seen through the lens of economic free fall and the constant, ill-defined threat of terrorism, his meticulously composed images of production floors, cubicles and missile silos -- dating from the mid-1980s through the 1990s -- seem like documents of a bygone world, one that was industrious (if bland) and globally dominant (if plodding). It certainly wasn't the good old days, and Shambroom's project has never been nostalgic. But his body of work, which in recent years has expanded to include city council meetings and post- 9/11 security training camps, forms a kind of material history of American economic, military and political might. It also reveals a surprising vulnerability. …. Shambroom's exquisite eye for composition is also evident in his images of nuclear sites. The layout of a 1992 photo, "Minuteman II Missile in Transporter Erector Vehicle, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota," is as systematic as a Sol LeWitt drawing: A large circle (presumably the base of the missile) contains four smaller circles evenly spaced around a red square. It would be a perfect abstract composition save for the pair of camouflage-clad legs that snake disturbingly out from the circle's lower edge.
Los Angeles Times, "Revealing the banality of worldwide domination", March 6, 2009, Mizota, Sharon.

Shambroom's images seek to make the abstract notion of power tangible, without losing sight of the humorously literal. …More than power, Shambroom's focus is America and its innumerable contradictions. His project is a fascinating study of the intertwinement of America's identity with industry, and its adaptability to the times. …. Because Shambroom delves so deeply into the communities and institutions he photographs, he shares some of the hyper-investment and accommodation that often comes with documentary film portraits of esoteric communities. What might have become an ironic or unnecessarily goading project becomes a shaded, human-scale endeavor.
Art Papers, "Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power". Jan.-Feb. 2009, Feaster, Felicia.

With the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq now a historical marker, and more than 4,000 United States Servicemen and -women dead, Paul Shambroom’s exhibition, Picturing Power, presents an even more sobering look at power, its sources and its repercussions. Picturing Power is an evocative show that features nearly fifty color photographs culled from five of Shambroom’s series: Factories, Offices, Nuclear Weapons, Meetings, and Security. ....Shambroom crafts exquisitely conceived images whose subject matter intellectually shape-shifts from the authoritarian stance of power in the abstract and warheads at rest, to the absurdity of the real world manifestations of power: a figure covered head-to-toe in an insulated puffy green suit and headgear, leaning on a stainless steel robot in the birch woods of northern Minnesota. The beauty or absurdity of the images undercuts the veracity of its subject matter and risks enervating the image of any tangible seriousness. It is with this dichotomy in Shambroom’s images that the viewer must come to terms. The ambiguities and contradictions are inescapable. In the end, Shambroom's manifold portrayals of power allow us to project beyond the roles of these specific sites and figures, to the presumed activity of power and, more critically, to the psychology behind its wielding.
Mnartists.org, "This Modern World: Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power". April 1, 2008, Riddle, Mason.

"Picturing Power" brings together selections from five of Paul Sambroom's most significant photo series, which examine the many forms of power in American culture. The large-scale images, known for their eerily vibrant colors and stark lighting contrasts, examine various aspects of authority, from small manifestations of dominance in "Offices" to the great social control of the government in his newest suite "Homeland Security."
Art in America, "Museum Preview 2007-2008. Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power", August, 2007


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SECURITY

First responders never looked so much like action hereos as in these images by Paul Shambroom.... The images, on view at Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, were inspired by the grand portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries: subjects painted against stylized landscapes, in light at odds with the setting.
New York Times, "That Chemical Fire Matches Your Hazmat", Gefter, Philip, April 16, 2006.

Shambroom's exploration of our security apparatus is one of the smartest artist responses to 9/11. Like Inka Essenhigh, Lari Pittman or Shirin Neshat, Shambroom hasn't made art about the attacks themselves, but about the climate that those attacks created (or enabled).
Modern Art Notes, Tyler Green's blog, "Acquisition: Shambroom at Walker", May 23, 2007

The peculiar stillness of Shambroom’s photographs casts these scenes as a series of curious tableaux or intricately staged happenings…. (he) punctuates these scenes with a series of portraits of America’s ‘first-responders’ – the heroic characters willing to risk their lives in the event of attack. Yet, in the strange detachment of these figures from their backdrops, and the performative connotations of the photographs’ art historical allusions (think Gainsborough, Reynolds or Camille Silvy), we sense something unsettlingly theatrical in their chivalrous self-imaging. In extraordinary costumes, their heroic postures resemble the valiant stances adopted by the ‘good guys’ of popular culture- part GI Joe, part Buck Rodgers, with a touch of Marvel comic superhero. Once again, we are met by the unreal.
Photoworks (Brighton, UK), “Paul Shambroom: Security”, Autumn/Winter 2006/7,  Burbridge, Benedict.

In his latest series, "Security", (Shambroom) presents a series of John Singer Sargent-meets-John Ashcroft portraits of Emergency Workers, SWAT teams, bomb squad members, search-and-rescue professionals, and hazardous-material-response teams... Shambroom's picture depict the convergence of capitalism, citizenship, and paranoia. They seem to say "Welcome to Donald Rumsfeld's war machine." He has the eagle eye and levelheaded skill to bring this message to the forefront, even if he's misguidedly printing these otherwise gripping pictures on canvas.
Village Voice, "Welcome to Donald Rumsfeld's war machine", Saltz, Jerry, April 7, 2006.

His straightforward approach enhances the strangeness of such images as a SWAT team storming a ranch-style house, men in hazmat suits spraying chemical foam over a prosaic sedan, and a gigantic Donald Duck head, grinning malevolently in an abandoned playground as if it were the last remnant of a vanished civilization.... Shambroom has also created nearly life-size portraits that draw on 18th century conventions for their heroic poses, and that are printed on canvas and varnished. His portrait of a Minnesota Air National Guardsman wearing an armored suit in an autumnal birch forest with a bomb-sensing robot is particularly surreal. The scene's bucolic innocence poignantly undercuts the action-figure heroism... The peculiar achievement of the "Security" series lies in Shambroom's studiously neutral approach. Shot without apparent irony or editorializing, the images present our first responders as ordinary human beings even while showing them in dramatic situations.
ArtNews, "Weinstein: Paul Shambroom", Abbe, Mary, Jan. 2007.


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MEETINGS

Meetings is a delight, a 128-page photographic monograph that ekes interest out of one of the most tedious activities known to humankind – the meeting. Photographer Paul Shambroom attended hundreds of council meetings in dozens of American towns and suburbs, capturing small-scale democracy in action, and turning impassioned debates about X and Y into Renaissance-style tableaux., rich with colour and drama. Lovers of minutiae should be sure to check the endpapers, where each featured gathering is neatly and comprehensively minuted.
Wallpaper Design Awards 2004 ‘Best Books’, January 2005.

Paul Shambroom’s highly original book about small town meetings in the US is a classic. Beautifully produced, with different paper for the minutes of the actual meetings. Detail and rigour is what this is all about.
Photographers’ Gallery “Bookshop Selection: Martin Parr”, Parr, Martin, 2005

It would have been easy for a photographer to satirize, or even ridicule these people in their sometimes curious clothes and often shabby surroundings. Instead, Paul Shambroom confers on them the human nobility of democracy. This collection adds up to a core-sample of self-government, a modern-day archeology of Democracy. He recognizes that theses characters are ourselves, that their intentions are ours. It adds up to a searingly honest photographic fanfare for the common man.
Creative Review (London), “Reviews: Democracy in Action”, November 2004, Doyle, Stephen.

Put in the context of Shambroom's work over the last few years, Meetings is even more significant.....
The monumentality bestowed by Shambroom's formal eye describes and demystifies the power structures of our time: labor and industry, corporations, the military industrial complex, and now democracy itself. You'd be hard pressed to find an artist working with more timely or consequesntial subjects.
PDN, "In Print", November, 2004, Lehan, Joanna.

Town council meetings are not necssarily the stuff of art, but in the work of photographer Paul Shambroom they are certainly the subject of systematic scrutiny.... In Mr. Shambroom's case, the choice of subject matter and the precision with which he renders it suggest devotion to a larger idea.... He plays with light, creating an evenness that evokes the studied artiface of neo-Classical painting.... Mr. Shambroom's approach suggests an anthropologist's method and rigor. He has created a visual catalog of the artifacts of power, but his pictures also function as narrative: part theatre, part film still, consistently hyperreal.
The New York Times, "The Tableau Inside Your Town Hall", Oct. 21, 2004, Gefter, Philip.

..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.
Chicago Reader, “Paul Shambroom: Evidence of Democracy”, Nov. 28, 2003, Camper, Fred.

…Shambroom gives us a glimpse of the largely unseen machinery that quietly but persistently determines the way we live…. In Shambroom’s pictures, the simple, actual event is revealed as a marvelous and beautiful enactment of the highest democratic ideals of equality, dialogue and representation. They are pictures not just of rituals, but of the real-life practice of self and community empowerment.
ArtReview, “Democratic vistas”, October 2003, Mullin, Diane.

Like an anthropologist, Shambroom describes social space and signals cultural meanings through his artwork. …(his) work can be read as a provocative call for personal and collective change.
Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), catalog essay “Paul Shambroom: Evidence of Democracy”, September, 2003, Irvine, Karen, Associate Curator

Extraordinary size made for extraordinary photographs in recent New York show(s) of works by Paul Shambroom at Julie Saul (of American town meetings)…
New York Times, “Pictures Worth 10,000 Words, at Least” Feb. 2, 2003, Woodward, Richard.

In their large-scale format and eye-level direct address, the photos seem to approach the impressive seriousness of Salon-style history paintings. These routine conferences have been transformed into complex scenes of potent drama…. Shambroom respectfully reveals the travails of small-town democracy, exposing the toilsome and humorless process in images that nevertheless entertain us.
Art in America, “Paul Shambroom at Julie Saul”, Jan. 2003, Ostrower, Jessica.

Shambroom treats these un-newsworthy proceedings with the gravitas of David at Napoleon’s court… Suffused with artifice yet engaged with a world beyond art, Shambroom’s series presents a fresh, smart, and ironic take on the ruling class, small-town American-style.
Art on Paper, “Paul Shambroom: Meetings. Julie Saul Gallery”, Dec. 2002, Woodward, Richard B.

Shooting his subjects from an eye-level frontal position typical of documentary photography, Shambroom inserted his “Meetings” in that tradition, while nodding simultaneously to the tropes of painted civic-group portraiture. The artist’s eccentric technique underscores this unlikely marriage of Rembrandt and Walker Evans…. Teasing the latent surreality from these seemingly transparent scenes, Shambroom reminds us that reality, documentation, and especially political representation are, to varying degrees, constructed. …“Meetings” revealed a powerful critical perspective …
ArtForum, “Paul Shambroom at Julie Saul”, November, 2002, Kantor, Jordan.

….in viewing Shambroom's works, one realizes that these seemingly marginal moments are in fact loaded with consequence. ..The towns whose governments are represented in the show—none of which has a population greater than 2,500—may be negligible on a national level, but as the local cogs that turn the federal gears, their significance cannot easily be dismissed.
Time Out New York, “Art Review: Paul Shambroom, Meetings”, October 3-10, 2002, Chasin, Noah.

The photographer attends town meetings and accentuates their theatricality: in large-scale, panoramic shots in digitally enhanced color, enormous platforms dwarf the presiding locals. The endearing banality of the scenes redeems them – travel mugs of coffee, the words “hard work” stenciled on a cap, faces hung in tedium.
The New Yorker, “Talk of the Town: Photography: Paul Shambroom”, September 23, 2002.


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NUCLEAR WEAPONS (FACE TO FACE WITH THE BOMB)

It seems incredible that Shambroom was allowed to photograph these things, especially the warheads. The experience obviously terrified him, but his narrative and his endnotes about each picture testify that he has kept his wits and sharp sense of humor.
New York Times Book Review, “Books in Brief: At Home with the Bombs”, Sept. 7, 2003, Bruckner, D.J.R.

Shambroom's images embody a personal vision informed by an extraordinary eye. He combines dogged research with a subtle dread of what he is beholding, an openness to the improbable and a cool ability to snatch art from the jaws of restricted access . . . The value of Face to Face with the Bomb lies in the wealth of its data, the power and order of its images, and the timing of its release…. It is a reference work we might want to keep on hand, for what we view in its pages is not about to be phased out. And in this age of security restrictions, it's a safe bet that what Paul Shambroom has shown us will not be revealed again anytime soon.
Los Angles Times Book Review, “We live so others may die”, Aug. 3, 2003, Del Tredici, Robert.

What do what weapons of mass destruction look like? Until Paul Shambroom published the remarkable photographs gathered in his new book Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War', those of us not personally connected with their manufacture, storage, and maintenance could only speculate on the basis of such antique models as 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy,' the bombs that eradicated Hiroshima in 1945.
Boston Globe, “America’s open nuclear secrets”, June 22, 2003, Sante, Luc.

More than any study I have come across, Shambroom gives us a visceral sense of the most powerful and cruel weapons ever devised. The relevance of his extraordinarily important work is heightened in the aftermath of 9/11.
Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima

No one who looks into this book can fail to be struck by the potency of America's military might. These chilling, wonderful photographs show us how casually we take the potential for terror, and how, unexamined, it has become a power in itself. Mere human beings can hardly hope to control it.
Sandra Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Shambroom's Nuclear Weapons series stands as an important document of America in the nuclear age. Dominated by their striking formal qualities, these photographs reflect an aesthetic sensibility deeply responsive to the advent and infusion of new technologies in our daily surroundings. His images are powerful reminders of this reality with which we continue to live.
Liz Armstrong, Acting Director / Chief Curator, Orange County Museum of Art

Paul Shambroom's Face to Face with the Bomb richly deserves the much abused adjective "unique." With tenacity and chutzpah, Shambroom got OKs from the Defense Department to visit nuclear-weapons sites and to photograph what he saw. No one else has done that; and in today's hyper-tense climate, it is unlikely to happen again. Shambroom neither praises nor condemns America's nuclear deterrent. His purpose was to demystify, to reveal the unseen. Openness, he reasoned, is the American way. The result is a one-of-a-kind artifact of the Cold War.
Mike Moore, Senior Editor, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Paul Shambroom’s “Nuclear Weapons” photographs—images of soldiers climbing on and around nuclear warheads—introduced the Minneapolis artist to a national audience at the 1997 Whitney Biennial. The series, which was impressive for Shambroom’s ingenuity in gaining access to these classified spaces as for its formal rigor, toed the line between reportage and art, engaging in a kind of watchdog politicism that characterizes much contemporary photography.
ArtForum, “Paul Shambroom at Julie Saul”, November, 2002, Kantor, Jordan.

…my favorite photographer in the show (1997 Whitney Biennial) is Paul Shambroom, whose large color pictures of truly forbidden places, namely those nuclear weapons sites which he somehow obtains permission to photograph, are not only truly beautiful but also highly informative.
Art in America, “Turtle Derby (Whitney Biennial)”, June, 1997, Adams, Brooks.


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INTERVIEWS AND LECTURES

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

MONOGRAPH

  • Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power, 160 pages, 47 color plates, essays by Dick Hebdige, Diane Mullin, Helena Reckitt, Christopher Scoates, publ. Weisman Art Museum, distributed by D.A.P, 2008.
  • Meetings, photographs by Paul Shambroom, 128 pages, 40 color plates, Chris Boot Publishing, London, 2004.
  • Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War, photographs by Paul Shambroom, 144 pages, 83 color plates, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003. introduction by Rhodes, Richaard, prologue and text by Shambroom, Paul.

BOOKS, COLLECTIONS, CATALOGS

REVIEWS, OTHER PRESS, INTERVIEWS