Podcast: Paul Shambroom Explores Homeland 'Security'

September 27, 2006

Politicians are expected to suggest answers, but the artist need do nothing more than pose the right questions.

One artist whose work is asking a lot of pertinent questions these days is Minneapolis, Minn.-based Paul Shambroom.

What is the next terrorist attack going to be? How is it going to affect us? How are we going to respond to it? Are we safe? Are we not safe?

In his latest work, titled "Security," Shambroom asks all those questions and more. His portraits of law enforcement officers, first-responders and counter-terrorism soldiers are his attempt at putting a visual image to the often-abstract concept of security. The photos serve as subtle reminders of the frightening new world we're living in post-9/11.

"All of my work and all of my interests has to deal with democratic processes and security and how we participate in our democracy," Shambroom said in an interview earlier this year.

Shambroom is nothing if not ambitious. His previous books have dealt with nothing less than nuclear proliferation (Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality after the Cold War) and American democracy (Meetings).

In our wide-ranging conversation earlier this year, Shambroom touched on several subjects, from his ability to gain access to difficult, bureaucratically complicated training sites to his process of post-production and printing on stretched canvas.

A partial transcript of our interview follows, but we recommend you listen to the entire audio file of the interview.

Partial Transcript:

Jay DeFoore: Describe the ideas you're exploring with this new work.

Paul Shambroom: The approach I'm taking is visiting training sites around the United States where first responders, law enforcements and counter-terrorism people are training to respond to whatever the next terrorism incident might be. Most of the places I've been going to are funded by Department of Homeland Security. My process involves a lot of access to difficult situations, which is territory I explored in my earlier project on nuclear weapons called "Face to Face with the Bomb." So I know how to make the requests and deal with these bureaucracies.

The places I'm going to are not classified, they're not really secret places, they're very public, and of course with the Internet this type of research is a lot easier to do than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

The reason that I'm focusing on this particular aspect was to follow an aspect I've had for quite a while and that is to put a visual face on an abstract concept. In this case it's the fear that we deal with in the U.S. and have since 9/11. What is the next [terrorist attack] going to be? How is it going to affect us? How are we going to respond to it? Are we safe? Are we not safe?

My approach is not so much to answer these questions. It's to come up with a visual approach where the questions are a little more addressable for viewers. Some things are so abstract that if we don't have some concrete visual images to deal with them then I think we just dismiss them and become kind of numb."

JD: What secrets do you have for getting this access?

PS: The steps are first deciding where you want to go and being very specific about that, not just proposing it in a general way, saying "Oh I want to go see secret training places. Or see police training places. You have to do a lot of research and a lot of legwork before you even begin the correspondence.

The first step is to figure out where you want to go. The second step is to figure out who is in charge of it and who makes the decisions. And then there is some strategic planning involved. It's always a question of do I ask the head people at the highest level running this place or do I just call or e-mail the public affairs officer on site and ask permission. And sometimes that works just fine sometimes it's very easy. Some of the sites I've gotten into have literally required just one e-mail or one phone call and they respond and say yes. A lot of these institutions are happy to have the attention. The area where it gets a little confusing with my requests is that I'm not really approaching them as a media representative. I'm not doing this work for the most part on assignment for a magazine or publication. I'm doing it as an independent artist. The question is always where will these appear and my answer is well, eventually in museum exhibitions and probably a book. But that's very indefinite sounding and I think it makes it a little difficult for them to act on the requests.

JD: Represented by the Julie Saul Gallery in New York City, Shambroom prints on canvas, which gives his photographs a painterly quality.

PS: I started making inkjet prints on canvas in 1999. That was a very fortunate confluence of the technology maturing the same time when conceptually it made sense for me to make the prints that way. That was a time when large-format inkjet printers were both becoming available and affordable, and also the ink formulations were becoming archival and permanent enough that I could in good conscience offer these things for sale to museums and collectors.

For the benefit of any listeners who haven't seen the work, I don't do this with all my work, but in the "Security," there's a group of portraits in particular that are very large. They are 63 x 38 inches, printed on canvas, varnished and stretched just as a traditional painting would be and framed without any glazing over them. So they have a very object-like quality to them. I just find the printing on canvas very beautiful. It's very direct. I love the quality of the ink, especially with the varnish on it.

I also am doing a lot of post digital manipulation on these images, particularly the portraits. They're very formal and mannered. The poses are somewhat influenced by 17th and 18th century portraiture of nobility and military and civic leaders. The way I photographed the first responders for these portraits is somewhat influenced by that. I'm shooting on location but using lighting, which is something I haven't really done before. And again that is also somewhat influenced by the way these paintings were done hundreds of years ago. They'd take a sitter into the studio and do the portrait portion with indirect, beautiful soft northern light from skylights and windows. Then they would take that portrait and drop it into a landscape that sometimes was painting by their assistants. There kind of an inconsistency in the lights when you study these paintings, and I have spent a lot of time over the last few years traveling both in Europe and New York. There's just something a little weird about them.


My hope is that when you look at them they seem oddly familiar.

To subscribe to this podcast series, paste the following URL into your iTunes or other podcast player: