That Chemical Fire Matches Your Hazmat

An artist finds grand portraiture in training exercises for emergency workers.


First responders never looked so much like action heroes as in these images by Paul Shambroom. That wasn't his goal when he was taking the photographs, at training facilities financed by the Department of Homeland Security. Instead he was interested in the simulated terrorist attacks these emergency workers were participating in, and how the exercises blurred the line between fantasy and reality. Sometimes they involved elaborate environments, like an aban–doned town - with a bowling alley, bank and convenience store - bought whole to serve as a testing ground. In exercises where volunteers were exposed to pathogens, he was struck, he said in a talk at Bard College, by the theme-park atmosphere, where "moon suit-clad students go through their paces sniffing the air with exotic instruments." The images, on view at Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, were inspired by the grand portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries: sub–jects painted. against stylized landscapes, in light at odds with the setting. "I've tried to suggest a similar quality in my portraits, although my subjects are actually photographed in the natural settings," Mr. Shambroom said. Another important difference in the setting: the painterly quality is a result of a decidedly 21st-century effect - digital manipulation.        PHILIP GEFTER