Paul Shambroom Meetings
Chris Boot. London, 2004
240x300 mm (9',x12in!.128 pp
Hardback with full cream cover and jacket
40 colour photographs
Text by Paul Shambroom; reproduced minutes of all council meetings featured; design by Stuart Smith
The fact that Paul Shambroom makes wide, horizontal photographs and prints them on canvas provides a deliberate link on the photographer's part between photography and painting. In this book of American small town council meetings, the canvas effect is not adopted, but the art historical references can still be appreciated, and may be all the better for being more subtle. The most obvious, as one looks at groups of people strung out behind a table, is Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, but a better analogy would be those seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of burghers and citizens of the rising merchant classes. This is the level of citizenship that Shambroom photographs in Meetings, his examination of democracy in action. They are the good burghers of the United States, solid citizens who feel it part of their civic duty to ensure that the garbage is collected, that the street lights work and that the right kind of grass is planted outside the town hall.
Shambroom's images were taken in available light using a large-format camera, which gave rise to a limitation that became a virtue. He could only photograph moments when people were still, usually listening to someone speaking. This lends his images both quietude and seriousness, and, importantly, makes them neutral in tone, devoid of the irony that another photographer might have been tempted to explore. For although town councillors generally have a sense of civic duty, they can also be busybodies or opportunists, looking to network with influential figures.
Although democracy at grass-roots level is important - indeed vital - it can also be extremely boring. It is greatly to Shambroom's credit that he not only endured some excruciatingly tedious gatherings (exemplified in the reproduced minutes) but that he manages, by virtue of his pictures' scrupulous neutrality, to capture something of this. He shows how dull, trivial, sometimes smug and self-serving the process of democratic government can be, but also how, as Winston Churchill noted, this imperfect system is the best we have, and must be cherished.