Paul Shambroom


As much as systems theory, complexity theory and overarching analysis of globalism attempt to clarify the large forces that affect us, they often obfuscate rather than reveal. Paul ShambroomÕs photography distils these systems into singular profound images that for a brief moment clarify. Whether it is the monstrous nuclear arsenal developed during the Cold War, the practice of labour tucked away in factories, the process of day-to-day American politics or the pragmatics of an increasingly emergency-driven economy, his work retains an active agenda of producing agency through photography. Revealing the machinations behind the curtain is not a particularly new photographic endeavour. In the 1930s Walker Evans used the camera to bring the poverty of the Depression to the eyes of the public. His political strategy was simple: if people can see the suffering of others, surely they would do something. In his form of photographic reportage, Evans brought America closer to itself and carved out a political form of photography that Shambroom surely draws from.

Yet the visual terrain of the early twenty-first century is markedly different, and the strategy of producing action by documenting the tragedy of inaction seems to have lost its lustre. Instead, the operating question has become: what are the forces at work today that produce the world and its corollary injustices? Shambroom sets out to depict succinctly complex systems of power and in so doing his project is decidedly for the present. In appreciating his photographic oeuvre, a viewer often feels the banality of their condition placed within a larger framework of operating principles.

ShambroomÕs photographic series ÒMeetingsÓ(1999-2003) depicts the workings of local government in historic terms. The photographs show democracy in action, and yet their often provincial qualities, such as the podgy adolescent boy taking notes or the soda machine in the background, presents an all-too-familiar image. Shambroom, equipped with a copious database of 15,000 small towns and a list of their schedules, crisscrossed the United States. He dutifully attended hundreds of meetings and documented their goings-on. The photographs often present a community grappling with its local issues, but in their quaintness a viewer can see the potential for his or her own participation. And while a faint hint of irony can be detected in the work, the cynicism is counterbalanced by ShambroomÕs intention to elevate the banality of small-town democracy onto a historic stage. The photographs are printed on canvas, and with their panoramic format they gain a semblance of historic portent. The everyday minutiae of town politics shifts from the periphery of political life towards the centre of what makes democracy function or not.

ShambroomÕs most recent series ÒSecurityÓ (2005) tackles the state of emergency and its manifestation in the United States today. Finding evidence in protective suits, training sites in New Mexico and car bomb tests, Shambroom once again detects the vernacular sites where the global psychological condition takes physical form. If town meetings give tangible meaning to the democratic process, then the ÒSecurityÓ series provides a physical reality to national paranoia. Far removed from a mental haze of fear, it brings to the viewerÕs attention the operations at work on an infrastructural level to address an insecure nation state. The very presence of the sites included in the series allows Shambroom to remove the state of paranoia from an abstraction to a concrete reality embedded in the land, its people and its homes.

Nato Thompson